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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Divine Discipline

Classical Review

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  I have thought about violinist Hilary Hahn more than any other musician who works the concerto circuit. She has played here often, nearly every season for many years now, returning last weekend to play with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra. I certainly am intrigued by her phenomenal technique and the clarity of her musicality. Beyond that, she has a mystery about her that I find both fascinating and frustrating. I never feel as if I know her when she leaves the stage.

   At 28 this formerly waifish prodigy now understandably wants to be seen as a young woman. One only needed to look at her concert dress, black and decidedly adult, with a plunging neckline, to get the message. Hahn played the iconic Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, which she is performing with several orchestras through the coming fall. As anyone familiar with her playing would expect, she pared away extraneous romantic excesses and dug into the substance of the score. The evenness of her bow, the consistency of the tone, the richness of her low range, the perfection of sky high notes, the trills that could not be better, these were her characteristic traits in evidence last Friday night.
 Hahn is the most disciplined string player I have ever heard. What she does is nothing short of extraordinary. Her encore, a solo Bach Gigue, could not be topped by anyone alive. She never lets the audience see her sweat, that’s for sure. Everything she does is as musically satisfying as it is technically remarkable. Then why is it that what I want from Hahn is some hint of abandon, some signal that this goddess of the violin, who has a master’s control over her instrument, is also all too human?

The concert was led by German conductor Jun Maerkl. In Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, the “Spring Symphony,” and Borodin’s “In the Steppes of Central Asia,” he showed himself to be interested in arching phrasing above any other value. The music was well paced; the orchestra played well and expressively for him. But the performances lacked razor sharpness and exactness in ensemble.