Hahn delivers fresh and dramatic Brahms at Wolf Trap with NSO

Sat Aug 05, 2023 at 2:09 pm
By Andrew Lindemann Malone

Hilary Hahn performed Brahms’ Violin Concerto with the National Symphony Orchestra Friday night at Wolf Trap.

Even for violinist Hilary Hahn—a musician of international stardom, three Grammy-winning recordings, dozens of works written for her, and a new recording of the Eugene Ysaÿe solo sonatas that hit #1 on the classical charts—there remain worlds to conquer. 

In advance of her concert with the National Symphony Orchestra at Wolf Trap on Friday night, the orchestra posted a video from Hahn in which she reminded us that she’s a Baltimore native stating that “Wolf Trap was always a goal destination for me.” She and the NSO celebrated this occasion with a riveting performance of Johannes Brahms’ violin concerto.

Clad in a shimmering black and gold gown, Hahn exuded star appeal in the Brahms concerto. Following the ruminative introduction from conductor Alpesh Chauhan and the orchestra, she made her entrance sound more fiery than usual, playing around with tempo to heighten the drama while drawing out a rough sound from her double-stops.

It soon became apparent that any roughness was intentional; elsewhere, she made the sweetest sounds when playing multiple strings at once, and her high notes poured forth gorgeous and fluid, like a swift creek glinting with sunlight. Measures that are mere passagework in others’ hands shone in Hahn’s—at one point she played a fast run in which you could hear every individual note, giving a thrill akin to seeing a line of dominos fall precisely into place.

Most memorably, Hahn took the first movement’s cadenza daringly slowly, finding a virtuoso showcase not in pure technique (though there was plenty of that) but in the sheer intensity she brought to every phrase. She played quietly enough that she had to compete with the creatures of the surrounding forest for attention, but her eloquence bested their nattering. When the cadenza ended, Chauhan and the orchestra managed to sustain the intensity, with a thrilling acceleration to the coda.

Hahn and Chauhan took the second movement a little faster than usual, perhaps to contrast with the treatment of the cadenza, and it flowed sweetly. Soloist and orchestra launched right into the finale, in which Hahn and Chauhan had tremendous fun with the dance rhythms, as Hahn’s violin scampered, marched, and sang over agile accompaniment from the orchestra.

The ovation that followed was truly thunderous, so much so that when Hahn returned to the stage, she exclaimed “I feel like Taylor Swift!” Steven Banks wrote the fetching encore, Through My Mother’s Eyes, for Hahn, who premiered it earlier this year. It begins with Bachian tumult reminiscent of an energetic child, ultimately soothed by the melody of a lullaby Banks’ mother used to sing to him; Hahn made it vivid with her playful characterization.

After providing sensitive support to Hahn during the concerto, Chauhan showed more of his own podium personality in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. The conductor is an athletic presence: he spent much of his time conducting on his toes, with emphatic sweeps of his arms, and punctuated climaxes with leaps into the air. The NSO responded with lithe, fluid playing that unfortunately skated over some of the emotional depth of the symphony.

The dramatic Fate motive in the first movement lacked a bit of snarl, and the Andantino flew by without much gravity. The extended pizzicato passages in the Scherzo became a complete muddle, the sound of the plucks perhaps diffused into the night air. The finale had its share of rousing moments, closing the evening on a high note, but it was Hahn’s Brahms (and Banks’ encore) that lingered in the memory.

The National Symphony Orchestra performs with Lyle Lovett and his Large Band at Wolf Trap on Saturday, August 5. wolftrap.org

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