Monday, November 12, 2012

800 Words: Hilary Hahn - My Mortal Enemy


I should probably specify at the outset: Hilary Hahn is, to the best of my knowledge, completely unaware of our mutual enmity. The closest we ever came to meeting was backstage in the green room of Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall at David Zinman's last concert as director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra - she was an invited guest, I was an autograph seeker. 

(playing Sibelius's Violin Concerto in Munich. She was almost seventeen here but looked twelve.)

My first notification of the blight upon my life that is Hilary Hahn was when I was 9 years old and she was twelve. At a BSO Young People’s Concert, she came out and played the last movement of Saint-Saens’s Third Violin Concerto. My mother brought me to that concert because this girl was being advertised as potentially the most important violin prodigy since Jascha Heifetz or Yehudi Menuhin, and she was from Baltimore!! I remember thinking her tone was rather small, but that was probably because she was twelve. When I was twelve I had to give up practicing full-time due to the overwhelming stress of the demands, and with that decision I surrendered any hope of a distinguished career in classical music. And of all the decisions I had to make because of illnesses that struck me at far too young an age, none can, does, or could ever hurt more than that one. Ten years later, Hilary Hahn was accepted as probably the greatest violinist of her generation, and I was barely qualified to go to college. 

I wish I could say that my enmity of Hilary Hahn is simply the envy of a Salieri for a Mozart. But that implies that I was ever good enough at what I did to be Salieri (that would be thrilling!). My envious hatred of Hilary Hahn is not the Amadeus situation in which I secretly worship the thing I hate. I suppose it’s closer to Nixon’s obsessive hatred of Kennedy (for surely Richard Nixon is as mediocre as I). But I’d at least like to think that my hatred has a justifiable moral dimension in a more provable way than Nixon’s did of Kennedy.

(A Bach Fugue for unaccompanied violin. Perfection)

Hilary Hahn’s playing is everything I hate - not about music, but about life. There are those people - you all know them - people who just seem to jaunt through life with perfect intonation, gorgeous sound, intelligence in google quantity. Challenges for others seem to evaporate for them. How do they manage this? Because they are utterly superficial and dull as dishwater. If they weren’t playing the Berg Violin Concerto or curing cancer, they’d be perfectly happy to spend their entire lives listening to Mumford and Sons or watching Disney movies. All that intelligence, all that talent, and it’s used to the purpose of understanding precisely nothing. Behind all these gifts are people who are utterly vanilla and have no defining qualities as people but their excellence. They are uninterestingly perfect and perfectly uninteresting.

Hahn isn’t just technically perfect, she also has that easy command of musical language that organizes bunches of notes into sentences, and then into full paragraphs and pages with al the punctuation perfectly placed. The more difficult the piece, the easier it seems for her to tame it. It is as though the most difficult passages of Chaucer are lain before us in plain American English. And in the least 'human' works - Bach, Paganini, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky - Hilary Hahn sounds like a goddess. Everything about her playing has that same Heifetzian perfection. But it’s even more stupefying than Heifetz’s. Hahn’s playing never had Heifetz’s neurotic edge. Regardless of the piece, it unfurls with such incontrovertible logic that you wonder how anyone could ever have played it differently.

(Ralph Vaughan-Williams's The Lark Ascending. Jesus, even her tattoos are perfect...)

And if that isn’t enough to drive a could-have-been violinist insane, there’s the person behind the music. We’re told to believe that this prodigy could be entirely home-schooled, finishing her bachelor’s degree at 16, getting a second one at 19, be completely fluent in German and French, and still be the all-American girl next door. Hilary Hahn may be the greatest violin prodigy since Yehudi Menuhin, but apparently behind all the fuss she’s ‘just like you and me.’ Then came the Hilary Hahn ‘blog’ and the ‘vlog’ and the twitter account of her ‘violin case’ and the collaborations with Josh Ritter and Hauschka and the 27-encore commissions and the branching out into world music. So apparently this girl who will conquer the entire music world is as normal as the sun is light. 

(Bach's Chaccone. The divine piece gets Goddess-like perfection, and it's a total buzzkill.)

So near as I can tell, Hilary Hahn is a robot expertly assembled to do the best possible human impression. She’s the perfect incarnation of a violinist created to please her teachers - no mistakes, no controversial ideas, just a dutiful series of motions that she executes with absolute perfection. For me she’s every straight-A student I was smarter than who got into an Ivy League school by appearing to follow all the rules while I could barely get into college. She’s every idiot who makes $600,000 a year by age 30 while I couldn’t even pay my bills until two years ago. No other great violinist in history sounds so perfect, and no violinist plays as though they know less about life’s frustrations which make music so necessary. Hilary Hahn is every girl I’ve hated but secretly loved (or is it loved but secretly hated?) because excellence seems so easy for her. What can a ne’er-do-well guy like me be to a girl like her but something on the end of her stiletto? 

Compare Hilary Hahn to the real violinists and you see how much more there is to life. Hilary Hahn still plays like the girl who got straight-A’s, but Janine Jansen plays like a woman who gets two hours a week to play in an all-girl rock band where she can channel all the rage from work, marriage and parenting. Nigel Kennedy plays like the punk 20-something with an absentee dad who’s determined to get his online tattoo business off the ground. Leila Josefowicz plays like the girl who left behind all of the comforts of her Dad’s money to do research on vaccinations in the sub-Sahara. Maxim Vengerov plays like the ex-jock who learned to be nice to everybody as a kid because he has a younger brother with down syndrome. Thomas Zehetmair plays like the nerd who got beaten up as a kid but is now a world-famous neurological researcher at Hopkins. Gidon Kremer plays like the ex-hippie professor who left teaching so he could backpack Latin America before he hits 70. There is so much more to life than what you find in Hilary Hahn’s playing. Would that I could have expressed a little bit of that life myself. But apparently, in the milieu in which I grew up, you only had a chance if you passed through every arbitrary hoop and arrest your development to the point that your sole purpose for living is to please older authority figures well into your adulthood. Hilary Hahn, I hate you!

(call me?...)

(But she can totally rock Stravinsky)

Note: three years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post which had a rather different account of Hahn’s first concert, and of myself, on a blog I used to keep for two minutes. Which version is true? Well, both are...or neither...


  1. so ...she is data? Also Nixon is pretty awesome even with the Watergate snafu and what not.

  2. A lot of similarities, but Data's too awkward. I'm thinking more the Stepford violinist.

  3. This is like if I were to write a blog saying I resent Keith Emerson (which I wouldn't write) because of his accolades and well deserved) as a rock/ crossover keyboard virtuoso, or further my own inherent knowing I can't be the next Vladimir Horowitz or a (tracing the lineage all the back to the greatest pianist of all time) Franz Liszt, whose reputation has held despite their being not one recording to document this universal regard of his profound and formidable ability.

    I suppose you find a higher premise to your blog entry but what I see, sorry to say, is a person who made excuses for what they could not commit to in practice and further, and perhaps more typical, a writing which
    is entirely reflective of this, the intrinsic me oriented immediate gratification throwaway society.

    Anything, and I mean anything, short of PR and physical disability can be accomplished musically if one commits to the eons of practice over years and has the temperament to deal with the stresses of such a cloistered and focus driven life. It isn't for everyone quite nor is there any associated guarantee of transcendence to fame from it.

    But it's your blog and you have the right to write anything you want on the vast wasteland web, where one of the worst by-products of said existence is that "everyman" gets his "published" say. (Not that Rolling Stone Magazine isn't far more irritating plus their writers get paid for it).

    But, we all find our consolation (Liszt pun unintended) in however we will. And Evan, resentment fogged up as humorous smog is still in the end resentment of someone who is better that you or I because of a focused driven life aided by destiny.

    And to think I found this by accident in searching Hilary Hahn, as I do every so often, because she is a phenomenon whose writings in her journal I enjoy reading.

    But I do not mean to seem overly critical of you. We both must ultimately accept our ordinaries in the eyes of the "greater" public.

    I am, again, sorry if the SNL driven flavor of your post evaded me in my response.

  4. I've thought long and hard about responding to this. But I think your response speaks for itself, and any further comment than this is unnecessary.

    1. YOU, Evan, are pathetic. You aren't even incompetent enough to compare yourself to the fictional version of Salieri vs. the master, Mozart. Rather than rejoice in a young woman's great accomplishments, you belittle her by trying to bring her down to your level.


    2. God I love internet trolls so much.

    3. You, Evan, are the internet troll. And if there wasn't the internet, you wouldn't be even that.

    4. It's so great that so many people are coming to this defenseless little-known artist's defense. This is the kind of blind hero-worship that turns people off of classical music. If somebody doesn't react the way you want to music, you just attack the person.

  5. Hilary fascinates because she is inscrutable.