Hilary Hahn has managed a rare balancing act. She has the career and talents of a star classical artist and the mien of a regular musician.
What do I mean by “regular”? I mean that she interacts with the audience like a human being. At her recital at Strathmore on Wednesday night, presented by Washington Performing Arts, she had the look of a classical artist — silver ball gown, ferocious attack with the bow arm — and very much the sound of a classical artist at the absolute top of her game. She also established a connection with listeners in the most straightforward way: by talking a little bit about the music, her thoughts about it and the other people involved in making it. (When was the last time you heard a classical artist thank the page turner from the stage?)
She’s managed the same balancing act in her repertoire. She has a clear, silvery tone of unadorned beauty, and the classical canon is her home turf. In a Telemann E Minor Fantasia for unaccompanied violin, she played duets with herself, creating interlocking canons with the illusion of supreme ease; in Schubert’s Fantasy in C for violin and piano D. 934, she illuminated the soap-bubble music, beautiful and fragile, with a gentle singing radiance.
Yet she has also made a point of exploring other musical pathways, not with a sense of I-Must-Reach-New-Audiences but with a sense of “This is interesting to me as an artist.” She’s dabbled in improvisation, taken on challenging 20th-century repertoire (Ives and Schoenberg, whose Op. 47 “Phantasy” for violin with piano accompaniment she played on Wednesday), and issued short commissions to living composers for the Hilary Hahn Encores Project (much as Midori did a few years before her).
There is a matter-of-factness to all of this, both in her playing and her manner. Even in a silver gown, she exudes a kind of Shaker purity. The reason her Mozart (the K. 305 sonata) and Schubert are so wonderful is that she plays them simply, letting the music speak for itself — just as she let Schoenberg speak for himself in the Phantasy, one of the last things he ever wrote. (What Schoenberg said in this piece, as in so many others, is that he is a 19th-century soul dressed in unfamiliar garb: The structure of the music may be different, but the sensibility is much the same, so that his music sounds at once difficult and dated.)
All of this makes Hahn somewhat unique — which is a strength for a soloist, but a problem when you’re looking for a musical partner. In Cory Smythe, her accompanist on Wednesday, she has a musician who stands for the more contemporary, cutting-edge side of her artistic identity. A member of the crack group ICE (International Contemporary Ensemble, coming to the Atlas on May 29) and an improvisation specialist, he is as at home in new music as in old.
Or more so. Because Smythe’s sometimes over-firm touch and force were occasionally a drag on the evening. He was a fine, strong partner in “Third Sigh,” a set of three pieces that Antón Garcia Abril wrote for Hahn’s “Encores Project,” and in Richard Barrett’s fragmented, keening “shade,” and in the encore, Max Richter’s “Mercy.” In the Schoenberg he furnished the emphatic earnestness this music calls for. But the Schubert was simply not his thing. He played it, which is itself an accomplishment, but his performance lacked the ethereal shimmer the music demands — the brilliance to match Hahn’s own. Where Hahn is light and sparkling and springy, he was firm and loud (sometimes overpowering), and this didn’t, especially in the Mozart and Schubert, always add up to feeling like it was part of the same performance. It’s a challenge to play this repertoire, at this level, and I’d say that Smythe isn’t quite there, brilliant as he is in other music.
It says a lot about Hahn that she pursues her explorations without sacrificing an ounce of her own core — or, to judge from her presentation on Wednesday, her niceness. She dedicated the Richter encore to her first teacher, Clara Berkovich, who was in the audience, and said she remembered three precepts from her studio: “Always ask questions, always keep learning and never play a repeat the same way twice. Thank you, Mrs. Berkovich,” she added, before launching into playing that would make any teacher proud.