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Review: Violinist Hilary Hahn revisits Brahms’ violin concerto with NJSO

Violinist Hilary Hahn plays a core repertoire favourite, Brahms Violin Concerto, this week with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
Violinist Hilary Hahn plays a core repertoire favourite, Brahms Violin Concerto, this week with New Jersey Symphony Orchestra
Photo courtesy of New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

March 13 concert by New Jersey Symphony Orchestra

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Violinist Hilary Hahn made a highly-anticipated return visit to New Jersey Symphony Orchestra Thursday, March 13, 2014, playing a favourite from the core repertoire: “Violin Concerto in D Major,” Op. 77, by Johannes Brahms. The Orchestra also performed “Giro,” a contemporary work by Esa-Pekka Salonen, and an Igor Stravinsky ballet staple, “The Firebird Suite” (1945 revision).

The Brahms concerto came first due to a change in performing order. With conductor Yan Pascal Tortelier, Hilary Hahn strode onstage in a floor-length black and gold gown. She sliced into the sombre orchestral introduction with the familiar syncopated triplets in what Laurie Shulman’s program notes describe as a “cadenza-like … opening.”

The actual cadenza, in the first movement, is an intriguing composition in itself. Nearly four minutes long, it poses delicate phrases in a question-and-answer interchange, before giving way to scintillating trills and ethereal bowing.

The soloist’s demeanour was a demonstration of an artist’s total absorption in the work at hand. Hers was not so much a performance as an experience for her, as she allowed the orchestral fabric to enfold her. At once athletic and balletic, her playing stance rhythmically propelled her back and forth next to the conductor’s podium. In free moments she often turned to observe the orchestra, truly sharing the experience at one with them, marking tempo with head and shoulders.

In an interview Wednesday, Hilary Hahn told Examiner.com how a newcomer to orchestral concerts could listen for the greatest enjoyment. “What I love about attending concerts is, first of all there are no distractions. You can just let the music take you wherever. It’s about being open, being neutral, being interested and letting the music just take you somewhere, like you’re riding a current. In doing that you will notice a lot of things that you might not if you were really trying to listen for them. It’s the most fun when you can travel through the performance with the music and just have your own experience with it.” Practical advice for the seasoned concert-goer too.

“It sounds like a bunch of practising.” So says a writer friend who listens only occasionally to orchestral music on Radio Station WQXR 105.9 FM. “Whether it’s a flute, a piano or an orchestra,” he explains, “it sounds like a bunch of people practising.” My friend might be excused for saying something similar about the first few minutes of Salonen’s “Giro” (which in Spanish means “turn, spin” or even “change of direction,” among other things). But soon, a sudden change of direction occurred, putting a new spin on things, and what seemed muddled became crystal clear and exciting.

Stravinsky in 1945 excerpted six movements from “The Firebird” ballet and composed three musical interludes, called pantomimes, linking them together, plus provided an introduction to the suite. Maestro Tortelier led—in a way that brought to mind the jumping exuberance of Leonard Bernstein—a spirited account of the suite to end the concert’s second half in lively fashion. The evanescence of “The Princesses’ Khorovod” tricked audience members into thinking the suite concludes quietly, delicately, with ethereal strings fading away. What a jolt, then, the succeeding orchestral tutti hammer-blow, which introduces “Infernal Dance of King Kastchei.”

The 20th-century works were as well received as the Brahms concerto. The concert series continues through Sunday, March 16, in three New Jersey venues.

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