Britannia rules the waifs

If the appearance of a beautiful young violinist at the Last Night of the Proms makes you suspect some marketing ploy, you'd be wrong. Martin Anderson meets Hilary Hahn and discovers she has technique and musicality beyond her years
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The Independent Culture

Tomorrow evening, the Last Night of the Proms pays a closing tribute to one of this season's themes, youth, with a performance of Mozart's Fourth Violin Concerto - in the first half, of course - by one of the younger players on the international concert circuit, the 20-year-old American violinist, Hilary Hahn.

Tomorrow evening, the Last Night of the Proms pays a closing tribute to one of this season's themes, youth, with a performance of Mozart's Fourth Violin Concerto - in the first half, of course - by one of the younger players on the international concert circuit, the 20-year-old American violinist, Hilary Hahn.

Hahn has an exclusive contract with Sony Classical, and is one of the youngest musicians to be give such a vote of confidence in the history of the label. And it's her youth that Sony's marketing people seem to want to underline: a waif-like figure stares out from the CD covers, all unruly hair and wide, innocent, pixie eyes. That image is not sustained by the astonishingly assured playing to be heard on the recordings themselves. Nor is it simply a question of slick technique: her three discs to date, including the Beethoven Concerto and three of Bach's solo pieces, reveal that she has thought deeply about the music. The critics regularly fall back on such ageist compliments as "mature beyond her years", but in this case it's true: the poise and emotional sophistication of her playing do not betoken an ordinary 20-year-old.

In fact, for all that she has been followed by the "youngest ever" label for much of her career, Hahn has had a fiddle in her hands (currently an 1864 JB Vuillaume "del Gesu", by the way) for years. She had her first lessons, in her native Baltimore, before she was four, and attended the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia between the ages of 10 and 19.

Curtis takes an extraordinarily leisurely approach to the development of its students: all 150 of them get a scholarship for full tuition, and can stay on after graduation as long as their teachers think they still have something to learn - this is no prodigy factory. Since Curtis has no preparatory department, the 10-year-old Hahn became a full-time student, driven up from Baltimore by her dad twice a week for violin lessons and chamber-music classes.

Her bachelor's studies - academic as well as musical - began when she was only in her third year, so that her university career occupied her between the ages of 12 and 16. During that time, she kept concerts and recordings at bay, taking advantage of the calm Curtis approach to stay on and gain experience in orchestral playing and chamber music as well as in non-musical subjects: writing fiction and poetry, acting, literature courses.

A fundamental influence on her musicianship was her principal teacher, the legendary Jascha Brodsky, himself a student of the great Eugene Ysaye: when Brodsky died in March 1997, at the age of 89, Hahn had been studying with him for seven years. Brodsky, she says, "was the best kind of teacher anyone could have. He didn't try to mould everyone into the same way of playing - he took each person's strengths and tried to make them individual players and develop them into the best they could be.

"He also thought it was very important to develop all sides of a person's playing. He always had me working on a lot of different pieces - I had to work on solo Bach every week, for example, and I'd be working on a concerto and a sonata and a show piece. He was careful to balance technique and musicality. He thought that one shouldn't exist without the other: you have to have it technically clean in order to get the music across, and you have it musical in order for the technique to make any sense."

The measured evolution of Hahn's career suggests that she is taking it at her own pace. "I've always made all the decisions myself, but I've been lucky to have really good advice from a lot of people, from teachers and people at Curtis to members of the Baltimore Symphony and administrators in orchestra, performers, conductors, soloists - everyone! I'm lucky in that the people I work with, my managers and Sony, are willing to see things eye to eye with me. They don't pressure me into doing things that I don't feel like doing."

One of the things she does like doing can be found at where she uses the internet to "send postcards to her fans", as Sony puts it, from wherever in the world she happens to be playing. It's a novel touch for a classical musician; so how did the idea arise?

"I'd been carrying on a postcard correspondence with a group of third-graders [eight- to nine-year-olds, in UK parlance]. I went into the classroom one day when I was visiting their teacher. I played for the kids and found out that for their social studies class they were doing an assignment where they asked everyone they knew to send postcards from every city they went to, and they would learn about each city as they got a postcard from it. I thought, well, I go to a lot of cities, so maybe I can help. So I sent in a postcard that year from every city I went to.

"The next year, that teacher retired, so I had no more connection to that class any more, and I started thinking about how I could do it on a bigger scale. I had seen a couple of websites where artists had done some kind of diary on tour. But they weren't always written by the musicians themselves."

That, indeed, was my first thought when I visited her site: is she doing this herself, or is she perhaps being ghosted by some marketing chap? "No, it's quite mine. It doesn't get edited from when I sent it to the website manager to when it's put up. The pictures are mine, and the captions and everything."

Yet record companies don't usually refer to their musicians' admirers as "fans", so is this internet activity part of a deliberate campaign to attract a younger audience to serious music?

"There are so many people who are interested in bringing classical music across to a bigger audience, and so many people concerned about younger people not getting exposure to it, that I don't think there's any danger of it dying. I just like interacting with people that age and seeing what they do around classical music. But, of course, I also like communicating music to an audience, and the broader an audience it can be, the more fun it is."

Last Night of the Proms, 7.15pm, BBC 2 and Radio 3; second half only on BBC 1 and relayed to the Proms in the Park, onstage entertainment from 5.30pm, Hyde Park, London; 12pm, Centenary Square, Birmingham; 6pm, St George's Hall Plateau, Liverpool