Hilary Hahn’s instinctual Brahms kicks off Utah Symphony season

Mon Sep 20, 2021 at 9:22 am
By Richard Mortensen
Hilary Hahn performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto with Jahja Ling conducting the Utah Symphony’s season-opening weekend. Photo: Kathleen Sykes

Johannes Brahms wrote his Violin Concerto for the celebrated Hungarian virtuoso Joseph Joachim, a friend and mentor who Brahms had admired ever since hearing him play Beethoven’s Violin Concerto. The performance was so convincing, Brahms would later say, it sounded like Joachim had written the piece himself. 

The same compliment could describe violinist Hilary Hahn’s communicative rendition of the Brahms concerto Saturday night at a fully reopened, 2,768-seat Abravanel Hall. The featured soloist this past weekend in the Utah Symphony’s season opener, Hahn was an inspired choice after months of  Covid-19 workarounds to reintroduce performances intended for whole-house crowds at Abravanel.

A child prodigy turned classical superstar who boasts three Grammys and 199,000 YouTube subscribers, Hahn enjoys a status comparable to Joachim’s in the 19th Century. When she took the stage on Saturday in a bejeweled, sleeveless black and white print dress and rainbow mask, there were screams from the near-capacity crowd before she had played a single note.

Hahn’s performance did not disappoint. In the symphony’s first concert without socially distant seating since the pandemic began, she was a picture of relaxed confidence and seemingly effortless musicality. As she occasionally swayed and even danced to the music, Hahn deployed her formidable technique almost invisibly and in service of Brahmsian ideas that flowed as if she were composing on the spot. 

Hahn quickly established an easy synergy with guest conductor Jahja Ling, who set up her entrance with a subdued yet precise interpretation of the opening theme. The concerto begins with a solemn pastoral theme in a major key morphing into a stormy, staccato minor key passage, and the soloist repeats both before introducing a sweet, lyrical melody that breaks the movement open emotionally. In Hahn’s hands, that moment was a ray of sunshine breaking through the clouds, and Ling and the orchestra took their emotional cue from Hahn. By the time she got to the cadenza, she had enough rapport with the audience to take some risks, including tempo changes, long pauses, stark dynamic contrasts, and different tones. The audience followed with rapt attention as she built slowly to a stunning climax.

Ling clearly and conscientiously phrased the hymn-like woodwind passage beginning the Adagio, building slowly to Hahn’s entrance, for which she employed a plaintive tone. Here again, Brahms favors the soloist with lyrical melody that becomes the movement’s emotional core, and once again, Hahn’s musicality infected the orchestra and infused the tutti passages with warmth and sentiment.      

A joyful, rhythmic drive permeated the electrifying finale, which was accentuated by Hahn’s shimmering tone and lively, spontaneous phrasing. Once again, her synergy with Ling raised the level of the performance as she bounced along to his beat patterns and reacted to the orchestra’s flourishes.

After a raucous standing ovation, Hahn delighted the audience with an exquisite rendition of the Loure movement from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, a piece she recorded as a teenagerHer rendition was playful yet solemn, and layered with the emotion and insight she brings to a composition she’s lived with and explored for decades.

Ling’s presence on the stage was a happy accident. Utah Symphony music director Thierry Fischer was originally scheduled to conduct but was recovering from a (non-Covid) infection and was unable to make the trip from Switzerland. Edo de Waart was slated to fill in, but he fell ill as well.

Fortunately, Ling was available, and the concert proceeded with one program change: Instead of the originally programmed Shostakovich Symphony No. 6, the orchestra played Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1. Since retiring as music director of the San Diego Symphony in 2017, Ling has been a busy guest conductor; although his last appearance with the Utah Symphony was in 2006, he and the orchestra seemed comfortable with one another. 

Ling began the concert with a commanding rendition of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, which captured the piece’s fatalism and rhythmic drive. With tight beat patterns and clear phrasing, he obtained a big, rich sound from the orchestra. The late Classical period energy from Egmont led beautifully into the slightly more Romantic sensibility of the Brahms. 

The Sibelius, on the other hand, had a sensibility that had little to do with either of the earlier pieces and next to the Brahms, it sounded a bit overwrought. Premiering in 1899, when composers like Debussy and Richard Strauss believed the standard four-movement symphony to be dead, Sibelius’s Symphony No. 1 employs a musical language that combines Wagner’s sense of orchestration and drama with Rachmaninoff’s sentimentality.   

It begins with a moody passage for solo clarinet and timpani, which was soulfully rendered by principal clarinetist Tad Calcara and timpanist George Brown. Ling watched with his hands to his sides until the string section’s shimmering entrance, at which point he took the orchestra on a lush, cinematic journey. Highlights included a shamelessly beautiful contrapuntal duet between oboe and the bassoon in the Andante second movement, and the galloping third movement Scherzo, which Ling took at a breathless pace. In the fourth movement finale, Ling squeezed every ounce of sound out of the orchestra and brought the audience to its feet for the second time.

It was wonderful to be back in a fully reopened Abravanel Hall — with few if any empty seats — for the first time in 18 months. Proof of vaccination or negative test within 72 hours was required, and masks were strongly encouraged and — for the most part — worn. Here’s hoping the vaccination rates stay high enough and the case counts low enough for the concerts to continue.       

The Utah Symphony with guest conductor Ludovic Morlot performs Stravinsky and Rachmaninoff on Sept. 24 and 25 at Abravanel Hall. utahsymphony.org

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