Classical Notes | David Weininger

Hilary Hahn’s solo encounter with Bach, just before a break

Hilary Hahn
Hilary Hahn Dana van Leeuwen/Decca/IMG Artists/Decca/IMG Artists

A decade ago, when Hilary Hahn was 29 and one of the most acclaimed violinists in the classical world, she decided to take a break. Not a few weeks or a summer away from performing to recover from an injury or work on a new piece. Instead, she took six months off to decompress and not be an internationally renowned soloist. “Taking time just to take time,” as she put it in a recent phone interview.

For a while, Hahn didn’t touch her violin or listen to classical music. She took a road trip and got caught up on all the Top 40 radio she’d been missing. One day, while driving, she turned on a classical station and happened on the Saint-Saens “Organ” Symphony. The experience of hearing those sounds — her first contact in months with a musical world that had been her world from a young age — was so powerful that she pulled the car over and texted everyone she knew to tell them to tune in. For the first time in as long as she could remember, “I was listening to music as sound and not as a score that my brain was interpreting from what I was hearing,” she said.


“I wasn’t analyzing it, I wasn’t imagining playing it; I was just listening to these magical sounds,” she continued. “And I think that was so helpful for me as a musician. It gave me a perspective on what music is really about. It helped me stop analyzing how to get there, and just be there. That was a powerful moment that I can still kick into when I need to. I can turn off the musician part of my brain and be in whatever sounds are happening.”

Ten years removed from that revelatory moment, Hahn, who now lives in Cambridge with her husband and two young daughters, will begin another sabbatical in September, this time for a year. It’s a chance for her to recharge the creative impulse that has made her one of the most innovative and unpredictable musicians around. Her projects range from keen rethinkings of virtuoso fare to a record of improvisations with the German pianist Hauschka to six new solo violin partitas by Spanish composer Antón García Abril, a recording of which came out earlier this year. (Not to mention the revealing practice sessions she posts on Instagram and Twitter, hashtagged as #100daysof


Before the next break starts, though, there are concerts still to perform — among them, a July 10 Bach recital at Tanglewood featuring two of the composer’s sonatas and one partita for solo violin. It is the last in a series of all-Bach concerts Hahn has been playing this past season.

Incredibly, they were the first solo recitals of her nearly 30-year career, and the experience was an entirely fresh one, presenting new challenges about how to pace herself and structure the arc of the performance. “You have to know where your mind is going to be during that stretch of time, and also where your endurance is going to be,” she said.

The concerts were timed to the release of her second solo Bach recording, released last year. It forms a natural bookend to her first, which was her debut recording. Back in 1997, when that first CD came out, the 17-year-old Hahn wasn’t thinking of it as a project to be completed. “I was just making a record.”


Almost immediately, though, people started asking when the rest would appear. “And I thought: Oh, that didn’t occur to me.”

Why did it take 21 years? Hahn didn’t really give a clear answer. “I just kind of waited until I couldn’t wait any longer,” is the closest she comes. While some may be inclined to compare the two recordings, searching for a large-scale evolution in her Bach playing, she said that the biggest variation takes place from night to night, rather than over decades.

“The big thing I gained over the years is really the number of times I’ve tried different things with these pieces,” she explained. “A concert is my experimentation time. I practice playing something several different ways, but in a concert, inevitably I get more ideas onstage, in that combination of focus and adrenaline, than I could ever get in the practice room.”

One of the ways this can happen, that familiar music can suddenly present itself in a new light, is by expanding one’s artistic boundaries as much as possible, and seeing how all the seemingly disparate projects throw light on one another.

If there is a secret to Hahn’s inventiveness, that may be it. At one point during the conversation, she described how she had been attracted to García Abril’s music for his adroit handling of polyphony and harmony. His music also has a unique rhythmic flow, she went on, which took some work for her to absorb. Once she did, however, she found that rhythmic sense influencing how she played other pieces in her repertoire.


“You never know what you’re going to learn from which pieces,” Hahn said, “and which composers and colleagues are going to influence that thing you think you know.”

Hilary Hahn

At Seiji Ozawa Hall, Tanglewood, Lenox, July 10, 8 p.m. Tickets $22-$78. 888-266-1200, www.bso.org

David Weininger can be reached at globeclassicalnotes@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.