Q&A with Hilary Hahn, Artist in Association
by Kathleen Sykes
The Utah Symphony and Hilary Hahn go way back! Since her first appearance with us at the age of 12 we have both grown and developed artistically. It always makes for an incredible and productive reunion when we return to the stage together.
The 2021-22 season has been our best collaboration to date, not just because we managed to bring her to Utah twice this season, or because of the incredible repertoire we performed with her, but as our Artist in Association, she has been serving our community through opportunities to connect with music in creative ways.
We asked her to reflect on her residency and history with us, and she provided wonderful insight into her work here and beyond.
Utah Symphony: What have you enjoyed most about your association with us?
Hilary Hahn: Getting to see the artistic pull amongst the wide-ranging communities in Utah has been enlightening, and it’s given me a lot to think about as a performer. In the arts, we have an obligation to the past as well as the future; not only in the composers’ eras but in the airing of many different voices that have overlapped in the past and will continue to overlap as their relationships to each other evolve in the future. Here in Utah, there are huge opportunities for the arts to bring people together, to be a protective, beautiful shared space, and for us to give one other time and a listening ear. There are so many stories to be heard.
US: What are some of your favorite things about Utah?
HH: The Utah Symphony! I’ve been working with this orchestra since I was very young; it’s one of my oldest ongoing collaborations.
The breathtaking nature: Even when I’m flying over Utah en route to somewhere else, I marvel at the landscapes from miles up. Seeing the mountains walking down the street in Salt Lake City is a marvel.
The weather: At least when I’ve been here, even if it rains, the day seems to always wind up sunny.
Coffee: I love a great espresso, and Salt Lake has some fantastic places.
The farmer’s market: From food trucks to microgreens, walking around a giant park filled with fresh foods is a treat.
The arts scene: So many artists from so many cultures are working here, and the support for music is very strong.
US: What are some of your earliest and best memories working with us?
HH: Of course, I love the fans. The young violinists here — their joy in concert-going and their passion for the instrument are inspiring.
The musicality of the Utah Symphony is dynamic. Every time I’m here, I notice something new about their playing that I can communicate with.
My earliest memory of the Utah Symphony was my New Year’s Eve concert with Joey Silverstein, when I was 12. I had never stayed up that late. The orchestra sounded beautiful. I was honored to be onstage with Joey. Being part of that celebration was special. I remember Temple Square being snowed over and little lights on the trees looking magical. I loved dancing and there were several different balls happening at the Convention Center. It felt like a dream.
US: Tell us about the pieces you’re performing on the program. Why did you choose them?
HH: I’m obsessed with Ginastera’s Violin Concerto. When I was brainstorming repertoire with Thierry, I told him about the piece, its intricacies, emotional rawness, and fascinating brilliance. I couldn’t stop talking about it! Ginastera’s Violin Concerto is so rarely played that most people don’t know it, but it’s one of the great concerti of the 20th century, on par importance-wise with Shostakovich, Schoenberg, Barber, and Elgar. I have never played a piece like the Ginastera. It’s not shy; it’s very smart. Imaginative. Ear-tickling. It features so many individual orchestra musicians. And it’s heartbreakingly powerful, with an exciting flash of an ending.
Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy is very close to the opera. I play it as much like a singer as possible, instead of spotlighting the violinistic show elements, which are, anyway, present and exuberant no matter what. The piece suits the violin so well that, although it’s very difficult, every note is exactly where it’s meant to be for maximum expression. The Carmen calls on the violinist to present an entire story within the notes. It’s so fun to dig into.
The Utah Symphony has commissioned a special solo encore from Anishinaabeg composer Barbara Assiginaak at my request, so I can take a meaningful musical connection out into the world even after the residency has drawn to a close. Barbara’s piece tells a story about nature, at the same time that it’s dedicated to the health workers who have given so much during the Covid-19 pandemic. I’m thrilled to world premiere this work during this week’s concerts.
US: What is special about the composers? What do you enjoy about performing them live?
HH: These composers all write, in one way or another, in their musical mother tongues. That makes these pieces genuine in what they communicate and grounded in how they say it. And they’re all electrifying live.
US: You have an interest in exploring new music and composers—what advice would you give to people who are just exploring orchestral music for the first time and learning about these more contemporary works?
HH: Give yourself permission to have no opinion. When we listen critically to something we don’t know, we don’t allow it to take us with it. It’s amazing to fall in love with new sounds and new ideas in real time. It’s also fine to dislike something. Just remember that, if something is a newly written piece. you are hearing a work of art that’s still in its baby stages. Treat it gently!
US: What kind of impact do you hope you left on our community?
HH: My number one goal for a residency is to become part of the living fabric of the city during the time I get to spend there. I’m getting to play some of my favorite pieces here this season, and being in the same hall as music lovers is powerful.
I love that the Utah Symphony reaches out. I hope that I’ve been able to connect with even more people during this concert season. The Utah Symphony can be an orchestra for all of Utah—humanly and geographically. We can invite and listen to those who haven’t always felt invited and listened to, and in doing so, we can enhance our understanding of the expressive richness of humanity and the connective power of music.
Don’t miss your chance to hear the incredible program we have planned for you this weekend. It’s the last performance of Hilary Hahn’s residency here with us until a future season!