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Hilary Hahn’s project In 27 Pieces: Reviving the encore

About the author

Clemency Burton-Hill is a presenter of the BBC’s Culture Show, Review Show, and Radio 3 Weekend Breakfast. A published novelist, she writes for the FT Weekend, The Economist’s Intelligent Life and the Guardian.

Hilary Hahn

(Peter Miller)

The violinist Hilary Hahn noticed a lack of exciting works by contemporary composers to dazzle audiences at the end of concerts – and set out to do something about it. As her project comes to its own glittering finale, she talks to Clemency Burton-Hill.

“Exhilarating and admittedly a little nuts” is how 33-year-old American violinist Hilary Hahn describes her project In 27 Pieces, an ambitious series of encores she conceived over a decade ago, which this week comes to its own grand finale. A glittering miscellany of short works for violin and piano – the sort of the witty, often dazzling pieces a virtuoso violinist might play at the end of a concert if an enthusiastic audience calls for it – the pieces were commissioned and curated by Hahn in what she calls a “very personal undertaking”. All 27 encores are under five minutes long and have been premiered in concert halls around the world over the past two years. This week they will be released on a recording by Deutsche Grammophon, alongside physical and digital editions of the sheet music from Boosey & Hawkes and MusicNotes.com.

“Here’s what I envisaged when I began,” Hahn tells me from France in the midst of a busy concert tour. “I thought: ‘I’ll commission some composers, perform the pieces, record them, and put out a record.’ That version of this project, however, is like saying: ‘I’m going to throw a big party. I’ll have a caterer, a band, and invite everyone I know.’ Well, yes, but then you start planning it and get to questions like, can the venue handle the band’s tech needs, what is the menu going to be, which drinks do you want to serve, where can people park?… and it goes on and on.”

Despite her jam-packed international touring and recording schedule – the more intriguing aspects of which are recorded on her personal blog and by her Twitter-happy violin case @HilaryHahnViolinCase – she was resolute. “When an idea pops into my head and takes up residence, it doesn’t leave me be until I have accomplished it,” she admits. And accomplish it she has: the project has been an unprecedented triumph, gathering such luminaries from contemporary music as David Lang, Mark-Anthony Turnage and Nico Muhly to create a new body of work that Hahn sees as a “narrative about the composers, about ideas, and about our times.”

Hahn’s original idea arose from what she perceived as a gap in the violin repertoire, in which modern encores are in scant supply. “There was a lack of focus in renewing the encore genre for violin repertoire,” she explains. “Encores are addictive, but the majority of the encores that we learn today were shaped by the performers who preceded us. Their pieces are our classics. And those marvellous old chestnuts are beloved for a reason, but I wanted to make sure that there was continuity in the timeline,” she says. “I was also curious for myself what composers would do with the miniature in our day and age, with so many influences and fresh ideas floating around in the ether. The encore is like the short story. It is a genre unto itself.” 

From the top

Hahn confesses she had little idea where to start, but gamely adopted John Cage’s famous maxim: ‘begin anywhere.’ “My square one was to listen to as much new music as I could possibly find,” she reveals. “I spent months in front of my computer, drinking tea and eating chocolate and listening to new music for hours every evening. I had to learn as much as possible about the material that was already out in the world, and to find who I felt would be a good match for this concept.” When a piece “grabbed” her, she says, “my breath would catch, and the urge to collaborate with that composer was visceral.”

Hahn, who has been acclaimed as one of the most outstanding violinists of her generation ever since her first record appeared when she was just 15, says the prospect of then “cold-calling” over two-dozen leading contemporary composers was “nerve-wracking”. She needn’t have worried: the response was overwhelmingly positive.

“When Hilary asked me to write for her I got very happy,” David Lang tells me from his home in New York. “Like many other music lovers around the globe, I had bought her debut Bach recording when she was very young, so I was excited at the chance to meet her and to work with her.” As well as “really enjoying” collaborating with the spirited and gutsy fiddler, Lang says he relished the unique opportunity to tackle a short-form work. “An encore is traditionally a short piece that shows off some aspect of a player's musical abilities. But which aspect?  You can show off their speed, articulation, dramatic sense, how melodically they can play, how rhythmic, how high, how soft. I decided to make this encore by focusing on how technically proficient Hilary is, and by filtering out everything that might get in the way of us seeing it. I made a very hard little piece – Light Moving – that concentrates almost exclusively on how perpetual its motion is.”

“I jumped at the chance to be involved,” agrees Nico Muhly, 32. “Short work is actually, I think, as hard to write as longer pieces because you have to have a really concentrated and focused idea. And I live for Hilary Hahn!” He too embraced Hahn’s exceptional technical virtuosity in his piece Two Voices. “I wanted to give her something weirdly slow, drone-based, and technically challenging.  She has to figure out a really complicated series of leaps from the lowest register of the instrument to the very highest,” he says. “I hope she plays it a lot and I hope younger violinists play it when she’s sick of it!”  

Short but sweet

At a time when nervous classical promoters are ever more wary of including unfamiliar contemporary music on concert programmes, the new encores offer an ingenious solution for an emerging generation of artists and audiences hungry to incorporate new work into their musical diet.

“One of the best things about these short pieces is that they allow Hilary and other violinists to put more new music on more of their concerts,” Lang points out. “After a Mozart concerto or the Tchaikovsky, there is always room for a flashy three-minute little burst of contemporary music,” Muhly concurs. “I think short pieces can be a great way of showcasing both a performer and a composer together, rather like an appetizer.”

To Hahn, a fierce commitment to the music of our time is vital. “To me, the question of classical music engaging with living composers answers itself,” she insists. “We need music to describe every era and a multitude of ever-evolving ideas. Music can only be written by living composers – anything can be played any time, but pieces are written by individuals, while they are alive. So living composers are essential.”

Hahn’s encores project may be coming to a close, then, but the experience seems only to have furnished the violinist’s determination to keep pushing contemporary classical music’s boundaries. “This has been non-stop amazing, in mostly interesting but sometimes overwhelming ways,” she admits. “Wherever my music might lead me, my eyes are open to the possibilities. If I get another crazy idea that inspires me, I’ll follow it.”

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