Violinist Hilary Hahn’s recital Tuesday night at Strathmore was not just a concert. It was a test of the direction and leadership of one of the foremost arts organizations in the nation’s capital.
Why such high stakes? Since taking charge of Washington Performing Arts in 2013, President Jenny Bilfield has sought to shake up what she sees as the stodgy, traditional model of presenting classical music. The organization has increasingly focused on contemporary works, crossover artists and unconventional formats. The most lasting legacy could come from its initiative to commission new music for major artists. In Bilfield’s telling, she has been asking performers to come to her with projects they would actually like to do.
The fruits of such a conversation were on display Tuesday, with Hahn premiering the first three of six unaccompanied partitas for solo violin, which WPA commissioned from Spanish composer Antón García Abril at Hahn’s request. This carte blanche places great trust in the personal taste of performers. In Hahn’s case, the new works from García Abril are an unmistakable reflection of her artistic personality: serious, muscular, virtuosic but not ostentatious, inquisitive but not revolutionary.
Hahn has said her ambition is nothing less than to make a lasting contribution to the solo violin literature, in the tradition of Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas. If, on the basis of the first three partitas, García Abril’s pieces shouldn’t be spoken of in the same breath as Bach’s towering, multi-movement masterworks, they are nonetheless an earnest and substantive attempt to grapple with a musical problem: how to write polyphonic music for solo violin that can sustain interest and stand on its own without accompaniment. The results, while not especially pathbreaking, were often striking and beautiful. (Hahn will premiere the last three partitas in October.)
García Abril, 82, is prolific but little known outside Spain, his work first coming to Hahn’s attention through an unsolicited manuscript. He cites Debussy, Ravel, Bartok and Messiaen as favorite composers, and the tonal colors and sonorities of his partitas were grounded in their legacy, particularly Messiaen. Each partita is said to reflect an aspect of Hahn’s personality (and fits her technique like a glove), though their titles appear based more on orthographic than musical considerations (the first letter of each title spells “H-I-L-A-R-Y”).
The first partita, titled “Heart,” is the most ambitious—a 15-minute attempt at a large-scale movement akin to Bach’s Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor. Opening with slow, meditative chords, the music is darkened by shadowy harmonies and filled with yearning. A faster middle section introduces restless passagework and then gives way to a conclusion that attempts to synthesize all this material, with striking textural and melodic contrasts, before fading into nothingness. The piece gestures toward a bold dramatic arc, though some passages seem to meander rather than develop in richness.
The Bartokian second partita, “Immensity” (seven minutes), drew the most enthusiastic response from the audience, with an irresistible sense of rhythmic drive and energy. Hahn dug into the rapid-fire runs and vigorous cross-accents with her trademark aggression, all the while revealing shards of melody that momentarily peeked out from the polyphony. “Love,” the nine-minute third partita, is the slenderest work, with a whispered, enigmatic lyricism punctuated by surges of emotion. Throughout, Hahn proved a strong advocate for the composer, with her robust tone, clean articulation and highly communicative phrasing.
The evening’s sense of seriousness seemed to hang over the other works on the program: an unsmiling, rigid interpretation of Mozart’s Violin Sonata in G, K. 379, and a somewhat overbearing reading of Aaron Copland’s Violin Sonata (both accompanied by pianist Cory Smythe). The recital reached a high point with the austere, penetrating beauty of Copland’s slow movement, but the usually stirring finale emerged somewhat airless, despite attempts to inject a little breath and charm.
The recital, which drew a healthy but not capacity crowd, was an early but by no means decisive test of Washington Performing Arts’ new direction. Commissioning new works is an inherently hit-or-miss enterprise, and every world premiere will be risky. But on the basis of one night, there is cause for optimism that the time and resources being lavished on this endeavor are not being misspent.