Saturday, November 24, 2001

NEW YORK — Her storybook life began with a twinkle. Hilary Hahn was still 3 when she was strolling with her father one day and he noticed a sign, “Music lessons for 4-year-olds.” Eighteen years later, Miss Hahn has gone to the head of the class the world class of virtuoso violinists.

In December, she will appear in the PBS “Great Performances” documentary “The Art of Violin,” offering insight into some of the Olympian legends of the fiddle from Fritz Kreisler to Isaac Stern. On Tuesday, she turns 22. She recently made her Avery Fisher Hall recital debut at Lincoln Center and saw her fourth album released.

The album is one of contrasts. It combines a majestic 19th-century Brahms violin concerto with a jaunty 20th-century Stravinsky concerto with Sir Neville Marriner conducting the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.

“I like to take something that’s standard and put it with something that people might not hear as often because there’s a lot of terrific repertoire that doesn’t get as much exposure,” Miss Hahn says in an interview.

Miss Hahn produces a sweet, innocent singing tone on her 137-year-old Vuillaume violin, with meticulous intonation with her left hand and precise rhythmic flow with her right arm. During fast passages, she enunciates every note; in tender spots, she vibrates her notes at just the right moment. Occasionally, you hear a slide in the Eastern European tradition of her teacher, the late Jascha Brodsky. In the Brahms third movement, she softens the opening chords that usually are played more vigorously.

Her palette of sound has the charm that reflects the giggles in her voice when she talks about such failed adventures as water-skiing (her personal best is staying up three seconds) or sculling solo for the first time (she put the oars in the wrong oarlocks and had to be rescued).

The Oct. 28 recital at the vast Avery Fisher Hall was among her biggest. With a sensitive accompaniment by pianist and friend Natalie Zhu, Miss Hahn performed sonatas by Brahms, Mozart and Saint-Saens. She also played one of her signature pieces, Bach’s unaccompanied Sonata No. 1 in G minor. She carried herself with the grace of a ballerina, applauded the audience and signed autographs in the lobby afterward.

“You couldn’t be performing if it weren’t for the audience,” Miss Hahn says. “I appreciate them being there. So why not applaud them? They took time out of their schedule to show up and sit in the concert hall and be part of the experience.”

It all started back in a Baltimore suburb. Her father, Steve, was walking with her through their neighborhood when he saw the sign on a school.

“We went in together because I was almost 4,” she says. “So I saw a little boy playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle’ on a tiny violin in his lesson, and I really liked it.”

The next week, she entered the Suzuki program at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Under that method, children learn to play as they learn to speak by imitating the sound rather than by reading. Hilary, an only child with no television at home, already was reading books. Her first teacher, Klara Berkovich, used a modified approach, allowing her to read music, too. That helped smooth the transition Suzuki students often find discouraging.

Mrs. Berkovich, who taught for 25 years at the Leningrad School for the Musically Gifted before emigrating from Russia, quickly recognized Hilary’s uniqueness.

“You never had to say the same thing two times,” Mrs. Berkovich recalls, adding that Miss Hahn would patiently polish every piece, phrase by phrase. “She and her father, who was always at the lessons, always said, ‘OK, you just say what you want, and we will do it.’”

While Miss Hahn practiced at home, her father would dance around, make faces and weird noises and pop balloons to help her deal with distractions during performances.

“You never know when somebody is going to cough or walk around or unwrap a candy,” Miss Hahn says. “I learned very early on that you have to be prepared. You have to do something every day, really practice and focus, and when you get onstage, you enjoy yourself.”

Miss Hahn stayed with Mrs. Berkovich until age 10, when she was accepted into the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia and began studying with Mr. Brodsky, then 83 and the last surviving student of the great Belgian violinist Eugene Ysaye.

Her father moved to Philadelphia with her, giving up his job as a librarian and dedicating himself to nurturing her career. Her mother, Anne, supported the family back home as a tax accountant. The three would get together on weekends.

To help her avoid the burnout that afflicts many child prodigies, the Hahns had Hilary focus on studying she practiced six hours a day and not rush a concert career.

At 16, she began to emerge, signing with the big-time management company IMG.

At 17, she released her first album, “Hilary Hahn Plays Bach.” Two years later, she graduated from Curtis.

She has since come into her own, traveling three weeks out of four and performing 80 to 100 concerts a year. From mid-November through early December, she will have performed in Germany, Belgium, Spain, France, Britain, Italy, Portugal and Japan.

“I turn 22 at the end of November, so I guess officially I was supposed to have come into my own,” she says, “but I don’t know if anyone really knows when they’re there. I think you probably look back and you say, ‘OK. That was the time when this started taking shape.’ I feel different every day, but I think everyone does. And I have so many different experiences every day that I feel at the end of each week that I’ve learned so much. I keep getting surprised by new things that I get to see or to do. I can’t ever imagine that ever really stopping.”

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