She may not exactly have qualified as “teacher’s pet,” but Hilary Hahn did hit it off in the mid-1990s with the instructor of her 20th-century music course at the Curtis Institute. That’s lucky for both of them; Hahn has since become one of America’s most popular, and critically well-regarded, young classical violinists, and the instructor, Jennifer Higdon, has become one of America’s most-performed living classical composers. This spring, Hahn is giving the first round of performances of a concerto that Higdon wrote especially for her. It’s looking to be a conjunction of two high-profile artists (at least by classical-music standards) who are remarkably compatible in taste and technique. Higdon’s new violin concerto should demonstrate how a composer can tailor a work to a particular artist without muting her own voice.
Higdon says, “This entire concerto was written with Hilary in mind; the incredible skill that she exhibits in her playing, a technique that is just phenomenal—and every composer’s dream—a gorgeous tone, real dramatic gifts in building and shaping a performance, and her unbridled enthusiasm for everything that she tackles.”
Hahn’s unbridled enthusiasm—notably her seemingly unquenchable curiosity about music—played an important role in the cultivation of the new violin work.
“Hilary and I met several times in the year leading up to my writing this work,” Higdon says. “We discussed the various concerti that she has played through the years, with me asking various questions such as, ‘Are there concerti where you feel you have to fight the orchestra for balance? Are there works that you just enjoy playing for the sake of playing?’ We talked about how she loves the use of the G string, but that I should make sure I’m using the entire violin. I listened to the Edgar Meyer concerto, which was written for her, as well as all of the works she has recorded. And I had the opportunity to hear her play [the Britten] with the Curtis Orchestra.”
Despite all this joint preparation, Hahn insists that she didn’t want to stamp her name all over the score. “I don’t get too editorial when I work with composers; I want them to write what they want to write,” she says. “I don’t want to take credit for anything, because it’s not my piece, it’s her piece.
“I do like seeing how people write for me, because they pick up on different things in my playing,” Hahn allows. Still, didn’t she offer Higdon any specific advice, or at least file a request or two? “I asked Jennifer for a little bit of polyphony, just abstract stuff really,” she says, “and I wanted her to approach the violin not as an instrument with limits, but as the means for whatever she wanted to write.
“I told her early on that she should push what she thought the violin could do and not worry about it, and I’d tell her if it was not possible. I don’t like for people to self-edit along the way.”
Pre-ordered on iTunes — get to listen on Tuesday!