“Creativity” is one of the most misused terms in the lexicon. We assume that all artists are creative, and we assume that creativity is something wild, unfettered and liberating. But not every classical musician would agree. First, honing an interpretation of someone else’s work is at the very least a different kind of creativity from making something new. Second, every successful artist, in any field, has to put in a lot of knuckle grease; creativity is, in general, the result of methodical hard work.
Exhibit A: Hilary Hahn. Now 36, a star of the violin world, returning to Washington for a concert at the Kennedy Center at the end of this month, Hahn is one of the most creative, illuminating violinists of our time — and one of the most methodical.
“She was very studious,” says the conductor Leonard Slatkin, a longtime collaborator and mentor, of his first time working with her, when Hahn was 16.
“She was such a conscientious student,” says composer Jennifer Higdon, who taught a course about contemporary composition when Hahn was an undergraduate at the Curtis Institute. Many years later, Higdon wrote her Violin Concerto for Hahn, with repeated encouragement, on Hahn’s part, to make the piece even harder. “In truth,” Higdon wrote in an email exchange, “I think Hilary’s playing is literally all strengths!”
Hahn has taken the same calculated, inquisitive approach to exploring creativity — both through improvisation, which she has pursued for a number of years, and through new works.
“The reason I’ve been trying different things lately,” she said last April, sitting in a conference room in her hotel the day after her recital at Strathmore, “is I’ve always been really interested in lots of different stuff, but most of it was outside music. The arts or in liberal arts, languages, literature, writing — nothing professional or serious, but just the creative spirit, I guess.
“Working with composers,” she added, “I was realizing that there was a whole part of the musical creative process that I didn’t have firsthand experience with. So I started kind of entering that realm, from different directions, just to understand a little bit more of how a composer gets to the final point of the piece that they write.”
Offstage and on, Hahn stands out for her directness. She wears her stardom like one of her concert gowns: something tailor-made for her that doesn’t interfere with her freedom of motion or her down-to-earth approach. She is at once open, friendly and a little reserved. Having long lived in the public eye and long shared her life with her fans — for years, she published regular journal entries and “postcards” on her website, and she maintains an active social-media presence that includes a Twitter account nominally penned by her violin case — she has become firmer about keeping her private life private, not least because it now includes a husband and a baby daughter, born last year.
Hahn’s two concerts this year for Washington Performing Arts — the second is Oct. 28 — are built around six solo pieces written for her by the Spanish composer Antón García Abril. The commission grew out of Hahn’s project “In 27 Pieces,” commissions of encore-length works by living composers, a project inspired by Higdon’s class at Curtis, where Hahn was exposed to a huge variety of new music.
“I started out asking people for recommendations,” Hahn said. “And then I realized that everyone had different people they were attached to, and some names kept coming up because they were very of the moment. And I realized that neither one” — neither personal attachments nor current trends — “was very representative of what I was trying to achieve.” She branched out, looking up lists of living composers, trying out Pandora playlists to find new sounds. The resulting mix is eclectic and wide-ranging, both stylistically and geographically, from Higdon and David Lang to Lera Auerbach and Franghiz Ali-Zadeh. The project won Hahn her third Grammy award, in 2015.
When Hahn asked García Abril to write her a piece for the “27 Pieces” project, he sent a set of three, which initially embarrassed her, because she thought she must not have been clear enough in her request. It turned out he had just been inspired — and, in turn, his work spoke to her.
“I realized that he had this way with polyphony for violin on its own, and it just seemed like it rang a bell for me,” she says. “I was at that time sort of considering how polyphony was developing in violin writing, because I play a lot of Bach. I was just thinking about the development of this technique and what it conveys emotionally, and the possibilities of it, and I was really curious where it could go. And when I saw what Antón was doing in that kind of realm without even thinking about it, I thought, I have to ask him to write a set of six.”
“The new works from García Abril are an unmistakable reflection of her artistic personality,” Simon Chin wrote in The Washington Post: “serious, muscular, virtuosic but not ostentatious, inquisitive but not revolutionary.”
Hahn isn’t devoting herself entirely to contemporary music. For her last recording, she dove back into her childhood with the fourth violin concerto of Henri Vieuxtemps, a 19th-century Belgian violinist. This season, she’ll be playing the Tchaikovsky concerto with Slatkin in Lyon.
“We have gone through a lot of repertory together,” Slatkin said in a recent email exchange. “What has changed over the years is that when it comes to the warhorses, she now exudes a great degree of flexibility.”
Hahn is finding other ways of bringing inventiveness to bear on her performing life. Her appearances in Lyon are part of a four-week residency in which she is making efforts to connect with the community in unusual ways. During a recent residency with Vienna’s Konzerthaus, her performances included playing for a knitting group. “I'm just experimenting with the way people listen to live music,” she says. “When you have live music in the background, people are usually talking over it. You don’t actually get to listen to live music in your space all the time.”
The one area of creativity that Hahn is not probing is writing music herself.
“I’ve never loved composing,” she says, “because I feel like other people do it better. . . . I do think, though, that I'm getting to a point where getting closer and closer to that, for myself, it’s part of that whole process of trying to understand how a composer creates.” She adds, “It could be really personally rewarding.” Stay tuned.
Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin will appear on Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, presented by Washington Performing Arts.