Hilary Hahn finds light on the other side of an 'Eclipse'
When violinist Hilary Hahn began what was to be a yearlong sabbatical in 2019, she had no idea what was around the corner.
The COVID-19 pandemic kept her, and most other performers, at home for the majority of the year. Her only concert appearances were in Texas in the fall of 2020. When it came time to record what would be her new album, “Eclipse,” she wasn’t sure if she was up to it.
“It was very scary to think there could be so much riding on this,” she said. “I’d been working in solitude for quite a while… and so I called a couple of close colleagues, one of whom was Andrés [Orozco-Estrada]. And we just talked it through.”
Hahn said the recording session, featuring Antonin Dvořák’s violin concerto performed live with Orozco-Estrada and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, was “electrifying.”
The album’s title, “Eclipse,” references both Hahn’s return to a new level of performance following the pandemic, but also the other composers on the album, as well—Alberto Ginastera, and Pablo Sarasate.
“I feel [the title] reflects the experience of the composers finding their voice after having started in a very distinct musical geography, then traveling both physically and musically away from that, and learning how to be themselves, as their complete selves, with their early influences and their own developed voices in the mix.”
Listen to a sample of the album in the video below; the full interview is in the audio link at the top of this page, and an edited transcription is below. You’ll learn more about the music of Alberto Ginastera, and how Hilary Hahn came to collaborate with Texas-based alternative rock band …And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead.
Nathan Cone: Well, I appreciate your time today. I know you're doing a lot of these things. And so thanks for all the work you do in speaking to stations, as well as your artistry. We appreciate it.
Hilary Hahn: Oh, I love radio! I grew up with classical radio and still really, really enjoy listening to it. So I'm happy to be part of any public radio that, that is still still serving their community, which is almost every one of you.
Thank you. Well, let me just start off and ask: so many classical albums for decades, you know, were like, "name of composer, name of performer, name of piece" on the front side of the album, without being very creative. But right off the bat, I think what's interesting about a lot of new albums coming out now is that the album title also presents an opportunity to tell a story. And so can you tell me about "Eclipse" as a title in presenting this music?
Yeah, I actually used to not understand why titles were necessary because I felt like they kind of took away from the pieces themselves. And I then realized that the title can sum up the feeling of an album, or it can help summarize a whole bunch of material that is hard to talk about otherwise. And so when I come up with a title, I try to make sure that it is necessary and also that it reflects the authentic experience for someone of this album. I did consider having no title, and then I felt ultimately that this title would really be helpful because I think everyone has a different relationship to all of these composers. You know, Sarasate, Dvořák, Ginastera.... Some people have a very emotional tie to one of them or a long familiarity with another. But to me, this whole project is one big story. And the reason "Eclipse" applies, in my mind, is that, yes, the dictionary definition of eclipse is the dark part, but actually an eclipse is a constantly changing scenario where at the end the light returns and you have a shift in perspective. I feel that reflects also the experience of the composers finding their voice after having started in a very distinct musical geography, then traveling both physically and musically away from that, and learning how to be themselves as their complete selves with their early influences and their own developed voices in the mix.
And you had quite a journey in going through the process of this album as I understand, taking a break in 2019 and then saying, "hey, I'm going to come back..." And then a lot of changes in the world happened that kind of prevented that from coming to fruition.
I had a sabbatical year in 2019, so 2019 to 2020. I took a sabbatical and of course, when I planned it, it was about three or four years before the sabbatical began. I had no idea that something would interrupt the sabbatical, something called COVID. So I just wound up staying on sabbatical for a bit longer. A lot of my next season was canceled, and as an American, to get to Europe was very challenging. And so the European concerts that remained were difficult to make happen and I felt like I could potentially get stuck over there. So I wound up with most of my season canceled. And in fact, the two things that I did were in Texas. So in November of 2020, I was in Houston and in Dallas in consecutive weeks, coincidentally! I had that on the calendar, and those were the two things that remained in my entire U.S. schedule for that season. So I was very glad for those weeks in Texas. They really gave me a sense of of continuity within the musical field. But then after that, it was another six months until I was back, or five months until I was back with orchestra. And that was that trip to Europe in which I recorded the Dvořák concerto on a live stream, which was actually my first live stream. So I was really out of the whole cycle of things, even as far as the online experience is concerned. So the Dvořák was such a revival for me and I really had to pull myself back into the sense of risk-taking and embracing the moment without knowing what the moment was going to be.
And you'll notice the conductor on the album is Andrés Orozco Estrada, who is the beloved former music director of Houston Symphony. And a lot of my collaboration with him has involved the Houston Symphony, although we've also collaborated a lot in Frankfurt, which was his other orchestra, and on tour we've been guest artists at the same time with other orchestras. We went with the Houston Symphony to Colombia to Medellin to do a cultural musical exchange between orchestras. And so that connection is a really strong one. And also my connection with the orchestra goes back at least two decades. We've toured the world together, including Asia. I have a lot of memories from planes, trains, buses, restaurants, concert halls, backstage, on stage! It's a great orchestra and we've done a lot together. So the partnership in the [performance] revival was really crucial for me.
Was there a moment when you were playing that Dvořák, when... you were perhaps unsure going into it... [but then thought] "Hey, we're going to be able to pull this off." You've written about how once you were on stage and in front of and working with the orchestra, that things came flooding back to you, I guess? Was there a moment in the piece itself when you thought, this is what I need to be doing?
I think before I decided for sure to do the recording session slash concert, um, I was really battling a couple of realities. The one reality was that I'd been working in solitude for quite a while. I was the only musician in my household. I hadn't even tested the things that I was working on against other musicians. I hadn't heard music outside of my own instrument even, and I didn't know where I'd arrived. So I didn't know if I could promise a good recording when I showed up and I felt like that was a responsibility that I had to really deliver. I just didn't know if I could. And it was very scary to think that there could be so much riding on this, and I might not be able to rise to the occasion for no fault of my own. Just circumstantially the preparation process was so foreign to me, doing this all just by myself, and it was very disorienting. And the other reality was that if I canceled... then I would lose this project that I had been wanting to do for so long, and that wouldn't be reschedule-able. It would just vanish. And those two realities were very emotionally charged for me. And at one point I just didn't know which way to go.
So I called a couple of close colleagues, one of whom was Andrés. And I just explained... because when you have close colleagues who are good friends, you can actually say what's going on for real, and you can get the human response as well as the professional response. And we just talked it through. I knew that I didn't have to do the the plan, but that if I did, I would be with people who had my back, and that actually I probably had a lot more in me than I was giving myself credit for. So, I decided all right, let's leave the mics rolling, you never know. If I don't go... If I cancel the project, it'll never happen. And it means so much to me, I want to hang on to it with, with my fingernails if I have to. But I'm gonna be on the edge and I'm going to do it. I'm going to take the risk, and I'm going to just dive in and hope for the best and really commit to doing it.
And when I got there, everything was definitely skating on the brink, and that was really electrifying. But it was also so empowering to be there and working through so much, so much psychology, so much partnership, so much music, so much expression, and so much real human experience that was meeting in that room all at the same time. It was just a phenomenal experience and the testing of my abilities and the testing of my sense of self was such that by the end the recording is actually in the order in which we performed it.
Coincidentally it worked well musically, so we kept it in that order. By the end, by the final note that's on this recording, and the recording caught it live in progress as it was happening for me, I felt like I had a very strong sense now this is who I am and I've just pushed through my my own final frontier into a new zone. And this is just the beginning of something great.
I love that. And I love live recordings, too. That's fantastic.
We're all really good live performers, too! Sometimes you have a project that is really better done in a studio and sometimes, you know, you just have to put us all on stage and just run tape, so to speak, and that will be the best one.
Yeah. I wanted to ask you... I was revisiting again yesterday, and this morning, the Ginastera concerto, which is full of such spacey atmosphere and these delicate passages...
Isn't it weird magic?!?
Yeah, I know! It's so fantastic. And it's also got a connection to the past through that Paganini quote that's in there, too. And I love how you wrote in the liner notes that it's nearly unplayable. So I want to know, what's the most challenging aspect of that concerto as a performer and musician for you?
For me, the emotional aspect, the expressive aspect is so natural. I love pieces that pull everything out of me and require me to pour myself out. Like, I love that. And it's not that it's just dramatic like that. Also, you know, the magical crystalline moments are also drawing something really important out of a player. But the challenging thing for me... I can play pretty much anything, but I have a track record of thinking of the instrument in a certain linear way. And you learn the classics as a kid, you build your technique in a certain way, with all these foundational elements stacking on top of each other. And what Ginastera does is he takes those foundational elements, takes the stack down, shuffles it around and restarts it. So that for me was the challenging thing to have fluency in this new order of things where all the elements are recognizable, but the way he combines them, it bends your mind and it also bends your physical process. It doesn't sound so radical, but it feels radical. So then that also is a sort of emotional choreography that has a purpose. And when I realized that the struggle was part of it and that I had this strong desire to make beauty out of the struggle, then I really was on board with the physical aspect of playing it, and I could make that feel natural for myself as well.
It totally comes through as a listener, I want to say. I mean, it's just a really terrific performance, amazing stuff. I know we're coming up on time, but I want to ask one last question, if I can, that has a Texas connection to it here. You also have a Texas connection through your playing on two albums by a band that I dig, ...And You Will Know us by The Trail of Dead.
Yes!!! Oh my goodness!
Yeah, I want to know how you met and started playing with those guys when you did those two recording sessions with them back in the day.
They came to a concert I gave in Texas. I don't remember what town it was, but it was sort of a run out concert and I knew that they were coming, and they didn't have any idea I knew who they were, but they reached out to orchestra administration and said, "Can we go backstage and meet her?" And I was like, "Oh, my gosh, what? Conrad and Jason, from Trail of Dead!" My management said, "What? Who?" I'm like, "Yes! They can come back and meet me. Yes!" And they were surprised that I knew their work. And I was surprised that they knew my work. And we just stayed in touch and found projects to do together. They wanted to ask if I would play on their album, play this track "To Russia, My Homeland," which Conrad [Keely] had written in a composition class, and it had a violin solo. So they wanted to know if I would do the violin solo. And I said, "Of course." And that led to a very interesting moment in Moscow. We played a concert in Moscow together! I flew over for 24 hours, less than 24 hours from Canada, because that was like... the chance to play "To Russia, my Homeland," live with Trail of Dead on stage in a club in Moscow? Like, that is never happening again! And that is one of those things [where] the lines all overlap too well and I can just barely do it, so I'll go do it. You can see it on YouTube. Yeah, they're great. They're very creative and it's something else to play with them live! They just have unstoppable energy.
We had them in our studios here about a year and a half ago..
And it was a lot of fun.
So nice. Yeah.
Well, we're up on time. And so I want to be respectful of the next person in line. So. Hilary Hahn, thank you so much for your time today. And I love "Eclipse," and congratulations.
Thank you very much. Be well.
All right. Bye bye.