|Andrew Lindemann Malone's Internet Playpen|
Hilary Hahn f/Natalie Zhu vs. Gary Hoffman
2/21/04 and 2/24/04
On Saturday, Hilary Hahn, violinist with four bestselling classical records to her credit at age 24, and her accompanist Natalie Zhu took the stage of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall to play chamber music for a couple thousand people. Hahn, a prodigy in her youth making the transition to just another well-known soloist, knows how to project to the back of a big hall and can make the musical gestures that grab your attention. Otherwise, surprisingly enough, she looked somewhat lost for much of the afternoon, even if she didn't play like it.
During her three works with Zhu (one early and one late Mozart sonata and the Bloch sonata), she appeared to be corkscrewing something within herself as she played, taking a step forward and to her right and leaning on her right foot as she went through the phrases; when Zhu took over, even for brief periods, she would come back to home and hold the violin down and her body slack, with a blank expression on her face. What at first looked like a petulant gesture seemed more and more to be one of relieved tension as the afternoon went on. Zhu, for her part, seemed to be having more fun than Hahn was; she initiated the smiles just before the pair decided to begin a work or movement and attacked her tasks with an enviable calmness in addition to vigor.
If I'm talking a lot about appearances here, it's because I honestly couldn't tell how well Hahn and Zhu were playing for much of the concert; even sitting in row K, the sound of one violin and a piano seemed to float away from the stage and diffuse quickly into the big space. The two Mozart works have not much in common except that they ideally radiate gracious intimacy, and Hahn and Zhu couldn't quite make the vast hall into an inviting chamber. The Bloch demanded more concertante-ish skills; both young women projected Bloch's big-boned late-romantic melodies and their attendant mood swings well, and they made an excellent case for an under-known work.
The big program attraction, however, was Bach's second partita for solo violin, featuring the famous concluding Chaconne, a technically improbable, physically taxing, emotionally devastating quarter-hour of no-pauses violin playing. The second partita, of course, came before intermission, because it wouldn't do to have an audience of people who paid up to $70 for tickets go home on such dark notes, but it was Hahn's tour de force nonetheless. On her own in the hall, she reached back for a technically astonishing performance, one that projected to the farthest rafters while still managing dramatic dynamics. As for the music itself, Hahn emphasized structure (for example, she pulled back a bit on the tempo of the opening Allemanda to underline its family resemblance to the Chaconne) over sheer passion; I suppose I like my Chaconne a little more harrowing, if "like" is the proper term there, than Hahn does. Nevertheless, it was an impressive performance indeed.
On Tuesday, cellist Gary Hoffman, also playing the Kennedy Center, gave the exact opposite concert. He played the much, much smaller Terrace Theatre, and rather than end his program of three Bach cello suites with the whistleable optimism of G major no. 1 he closed with the dark of C minor no. 5. To be sure, no. 5 makes the cellist tune the A string down to G, so there may have been practical considerations there, but for an encore he played the equally sad Sarabande from the D minor suite no. 2. (Hahn and Zhu had two lovely lollipops in their encore basket.)
The cozy performance space let Hoffman play naturally, and that was exactly what he did: His readings emphasized the dance rhythms from which Bach's suites are derived, hitting accents surprisingly hard while still letting melodies breathe. It was gentle but surehanded playing; his occasional technical mistakes didn't seem to matter when he not only had such a joyous conception of the suites but was able to summon that joy onstage. Even the C minor suite felt like an expression of love in Hoffman's hands; the quasi-fugue in the Prelude had both wrenching climaxes and vital, well-sprung rhythms, while the C minor suite's own heartbreaking Sarabande was presented as simply and delicately as possible, to all the more moving effect.
And then, after their respective shows, Hahn signed autographs (Zhu was nowhere to be found, though she played almost as much as Hahn did), while Hoffman participated in a discussion of the Bach suites. I didn't get to stay for either, but the difference captured something about the two concerts; Hahn's was a show, while Hoffman's felt more like a statement of belief in beauty than anything else. Only one of these concerts got two (two!) standing Os, but it's not the concert I'll remember for years to come.
CASH RULES EVERYTHING AROUND THE KENNEDY CENTER, TOO
You know how classical music patrons and enthusiasts wring their hands about how only old rich people come to concerts? Let's examine what kind of non-arts advertising we have in the Playbill being handed to patrons of recent Kennedy Center concerts:
When I was working data entry, I grew quite accustomed to being the youngest and (I guessed) poorest person at the concert alone. I'm used to feeling different, so it didn't bother me (too much). But similarly young and not-rich people might well feel uncomfortable seeing how manifestly the program notes are geared towards the upper-crustiest people imaginable.
MARGINAL EFFLUVIA: A SHORT GIGUE
My Hilary Hahn ticket was originally a Russian National Orchestra ticket before that damn cow got BSE and I had to beg the Washington Performing Arts Society to switch me to something of equal or lesser value before I went away. I probably wouldn't have gone otherwise. I guess you can tell why. I suspect she is a better violinist than I heard on Saturday, though.
Still, two standing Os is too freaking many, people! She's not that good; almost no one is. Other annoying audience behavior: alarms at the hour (Hahn), snoring (Hoffman). I mind unnecessary noise and unwarranted enthusiasm, the first way more than the second.
All this tasty writing ©2002-11 by Andrew Lindemann Malone. All rights reserved.