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Interview: Violinist Hilary Hahn gives us a lesson in the art of the concert encore

By John Terauds on January 13, 2014

(Peter Miller photo)
(Peter Miller photo)

It’s been nearly 14 years since violinist Hilary Hahn made her Toronto Symphony Orchestra début. She’s been performing for two decades, has recorded more than a dozen albums — and is still only in her early 30s.

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.

When you are so successful at such a young age, what do you do for an encore?

An encore, of course.

Or, if you’re an Energizer bunny like this violinist, 27 encores — all new, all having come into the world at her bidding.

One of the great albums of 2013 was Hahn’s In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores, released by Deutsche Grammophon last fall. It tries to revive the old tradition of the crowd-pleasing concert-topper in 27 new ways, with the more-than-able help of pianist Cory Smythe. (You can read my review of the album here.)

It’s too bad we won’t hear any of these works — which include a Canadian piece by Toronto’s Christos Hatzis — when Hahn performs with the Toronto Symphony on Wednesday and Thursday nights at Roy Thomson Hall — because there is much to love in this music.

Although each piece is by someone else, the project itself is imprinted with Hahn’s own personality: open, curious, collegial and unpretentious.

Those qualities make for a fine approach to the concerto we’ll hear this week as part of the Symphony’s annual Mozart festival: the Fifth, also known as the “Turkish” Concerto, K219, written when the composer was 19.

There are no grand orchestral gestures to hide behind in Mozart: it’s the solo violin line in dialogue with an orchestra about half the size of a modern philharmonic. Any posturing on the part of the interpreters quickly becomes as boldly visible as the soles on Emma Thompson’s shoes on Golden Globe night.

If the audience is in the right mood — and it could be this week — then we might get to hear an encore. It would be something for solo violin, so, unfortunately, it won’t be from Hahn’s latest album.

Hahn says she has two or three encore pieces at her fingertips for every concert. For a symphony gig, they have to be solo works. She plays through her current favourites before each concert, “and I pick those which feel right that day.”

There’s a big contrast for Hahn between the piece that’s on the symphony programme and what she might play to thank the concertgoers. “The programme, you make it happen,” she explains. “But the encore, you enjoy it because that’s what’s with you that day.”

That said, the violinist admits to unconsciously matching encores to programme pieces over and over again. She describes several recent evenings when she played a solo piece by Eugène Ysaÿe based on a Dies Irae theme as an encore to a programmed piece that contained the same theme — and only realising it afterward.

The logistics of the concert encore can be remarkably complex — and need to unfold in a matter of seconds backstage.

The main issue is whether or not to present the encore in the first place. If Hahn is working with a symphony orchestra, as she is in Toronto this week, she needs to know if her solo time on stage will cost the organisation overtime if the concert runs long.

She also needs to be able to read the applause — to know whether it’s a polite thank-you or a request for more. “Some audiences expect an encore but stop clapping after the first bow,” Hahn explains.

“The backstage people know this best,” she says. “They know when it’s an enthusiastic response that’s continuing. There’s this code conversation, this code language, going on backstage.” And it also needs to happen quickly, before the moment is lost.

+++

Hahn’s appearance is but one part of a particularly rich programme that also includes the famous “Laudate Dominum” from the Vesperae solennes de confessore, K339, and the great Coronation Mass.

Helping out is a stellar group of Canadian soloists and Lydia Adams’s Amadeus Choir.

You’ll find all the details here.

John Terauds

John Terauds

John Terauds, Editor-Emeritus of Ludwig van Toronto, is currently a Divinity student at the University of Toronto and a church music director. He joined the Toronto Star in 1988, was the classical music critic from 2005 to 2012, and continues as a freelance critic for the paper. He is the co-author of Roy Thomson Hall: A Portrait, a book written with Toronto Star Colleague, William Littler.
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