My life hobbies tend to have a trajectory of two years, my interest peaking around nine months before ebbing and finally drizzling to a halt. This month I celebrate my two-year anniversary of playing the violin and I’m happy to report no such trajectory. Instead, my interest in this difficult little instrument and the music it produces has only increased. More than ever, I want to explore its fiendish intricacies and experience, if only vicariously, what it feels like to be at the top of this game. It is unsurprising, therefore, that I should so enjoy the DVD documentary Hilary Hahn—A Portrait, a co-production of Germany’s Loft Music and Nightfrog in cooperation with Deutsche Grammophon.
This is both a lively and informative documentary, sure to appeal to both classical music enthusiasts and laymen alike. Set up as a “day in the life of…,” the documentary opens as Hilary heads to the Philharmonie Berlin for a performance of the Korngold Violin Concerto. From there, camera time is divided between the performance, brief interviews, and glimpses into her life as a concertizing artist.
Hilary and the camera take us inside the opulent Curtis Institute of Music, where Hilary trained under Jascha Brodsky from age ten. A hand-held camera follows her on an informal tour, which includes the richly decorated public space, practice rooms and recital hall (where Hilary points out, with self-deprecating humor, the back corner where she played with the second violins for years).
Both during the tour and throughout the documentary, Hilary’s digressions seem candid and unrehearsed. She talks about Bach, whose pieces she often plays to warm up before going onstage, musing over what musical influences came before him to so inspire him. She offers her opinion about recording versus performing live, the crucial give-and-take of an audience, the challenges of contemporary recording standards. The smallest sound, even a sticky finger on a string, she tells us, can mar a recording, requiring take after take, which the camera captures in another refreshingly human glimpse of the life of an acclaimed soloist.
Performance footage includes not only the Korngold Violin Concerto, but also Mozart’s Sonata for Piano and Violin in G major, excerpts from “The Lark Ascending” by Vaughan Williams, the Paganini Concerto No. 1 (while recording it at Abbey Road Studios), and the Chaconne from Bach’s Partita in D minor. The latter is performed, intriguingly, at Dresden’s Yellow Lounge, a classical music venue and club where listeners can wine and dine or quietly socialize while the artist performs. Not surprising, Hilary’s playing rendered the room silent.
Hilary Hahn—A Portrait offers an artful, comprehensive view of an artist who is not just at the top of her game, but is willing to share this with others—as evidenced by her website with its engaging long-time “postcards from the road” journal entries. (Check this out here.) That, I believe, is one of Hilary’s most endearing traits, right alongside her prodigious talent. This documentary reminds me that I am not just listening to an artist who is gifted and marketable, but one who is eager to engage with her audience, through her music and her words. These kind of devoted, giving artists, I’m convinced, represent our brightest hope for keeping classical music alive and in the public eye. A highly recommended DVD, with great bonus features, including uninterrupted concert footage of the Korngold and Mozart, as well as interviews with Hilary and longtime collaborator, Natalie Zhu.
Here is my list of favorite classical music documentaries that offer not just performances, but interviews, insight and offstage footage:
Hilary Hahn—A Portrait
Speaking In Strings – Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg
High Fidelity – The Guarneri String Quartet
The Art of the Violin
Would love any further suggestions…
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