Hilary Hahn is one of the few violinists whose names are known beyond the classical-music world. The 32-year-old Virginia native has been able to expand her reach thanks to her crossover choices.
For example, she was a soloist on the Academy Award-nominated score for M. Night Shyamalan’s 2004 thriller “The Village.”
In 2007, she toured with Idaho-born singer-songwriter Josh Ritter.
And in 2010, Hahn appeared on “The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien,” in support of her album “Bach: Violin & Voice.” Just consider how many times you’ve seen a classical performer on a late-night talk show.
In recent years, the young violinist has released albums bringing attention to composers such as Charles Ives and Jennifer Higdon. Now she’s embarked on another innovative project, “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores,” which is aimed to expand the violin repertoire while engaging new fans.
Hahn commissioned 26 composers to write short-form pieces for acoustic violin and piano. She posted an open call for submissions on her website, which led to more than 400 composers submitting pieces.
The program of the Utah Symphony’s Nov. 16 and 17 performances was built upon Hahn, who is only performing a handful of orchestra appearances this season. And in those guest appearances, she is only performing her current showpiece, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto, said music director Thierry Fischer.
“She came two years ago and it was a wonderful collaboration,” Fischer said. He booked her return visit “as soon as I heard she was free.”
Korngold is another composer who has been largely forgotten by audiences, though cinephiles will recognize the name. He won the Academy Award for his score to the 1938 classic “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” His 1936 score to “Anthony Adverse” also won the Oscar.
In 2005, the American Film Institute ranked Korngold’s score for “The Adventures of Robin Hood” as No. 11 on its list of greatest film scores. His scores for 1939’s “The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex ,”1940’s “Deception” and “The Sea Hawk” and 1942’s “Kings Row” were also nominated for the list.
Although his legacy lives on in film history, Korngold was a composer for orchestras as well.
Since Fischer knew that Hahn would be showcasing the Korngold work, he programmed Gustav Mahler’s unfinished Symphony No. 10. Both were Austrian composers, and they knew each other. A young Korngold played for Mahler in 1906, after which Mahler called him a “musical genius.” And Korngold’s Violin Concerto was dedicated to Alma Mahler, Gustav’s widow.
When programming the third composition of the evening, Fischer said he thought of the reported last words said by Mahler on his deathbed: “Mozart! Mozart!”
Like Mahler and Korngold, Mozart was an Austrian composer. His Symphony No. 41 was the last symphony he composed, and Fischer speculated that the composer never heard it played before his death, just as Mahler never heard his Symphony No. 10 performed in his lifetime.
In an interview, Hilary Hahn talked about the composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold, attending movies to listen to film scores, and sleeping during concerts.
You will return to Utah to perform a concerto by Hollywood film-score legend Erich Korngold. What attracts you to the piece? Although it wasn’t written for a film score, do you hear a cinematic aspect of it?
To me, cinematic means that the audience is free to conjure up whatever imagery and stories the music reminds them of. Some of the great works of past centuries are cinematic, even though they predated the cinema itself. How many times have you heard a Beethoven piano sonata in a soundtrack, for example? It is a compliment, I think, to call something cinematic — but I prefer to leave that description up to the individual listener. Everyone hears music differently. The Korngold concerto does not shy away from grand gestures, from the virtuosic to the melodic. I love playing it, because it sweeps everyone into its emotional momentum. It is a beautiful work.
Does learning about the biography of a composer inform how you might approach performing a piece?
I like to learn about the composer, but I do try to wait until I have an idea of what the music is saying on its own. It is worthwhile to let the content of the work show itself in its own way. Music can be a puzzle to interpret. That is a good thing, though. After I have learned a piece, I look up information about the composer and the composition to compare what is out there to what I have initially concluded. Then I adjust my approach, if needed.
What do you remember about previous experiences here at Abravanel Hall and in Utah?
I remember the first time I played there. It was snowy, and I was playing in the New Year’s Eve gala. After the late-night reception with dancing, my dad and I walked around a little bit, and we saw the little lights covering the Tabernacle’s trees, reflecting off the snow. It was beautiful. I remember noticing the Jazz and wondering what they did. I was not very sports-aware at the time. Turns out, not jazz! I was in Salt Lake City one year on Halloween. I loved working with Thierry last time and am very happy to be returning.
Do you have time to watch films, and are there film scores you especially admire?
I do watch films. I went to see [“The Dark Night Rises”] in Copenhagen, with Danish subtitles. I have to make myself listen for the soundtrack. I often get caught up in the movie while the music works its magic. However, since I am musically attuned, I think I am more influenced than others by the moods and spirit of the music. My favorite film score is the one to “The Village” by James Newton Howard — but I’m biased. I learned so much playing that, being in the middle of the creative process and watching it swirl around me.
It is not so easy to play a film score by itself. They often require special instrumentation from the orchestra, and without the film to give visual cues, a new approach needs to be found in order for the experience to be complete for the audience. That is because the soundtrack is written as part of an experience. Film composers can write great music that stands alone from the movies. Composing for emotional impact gives them an advantage.
Did working with pop singer-songwriter Josh Ritter teach you anything about performance or composition?
Working with Josh was part of a long progression that has gotten me to where I am today. It was indeed influential. Anytime I get to pick someone’s brain about their creative process, I learn something. When we toured together, I also got to see how he presented his music to the audience. He has such a way onstage — it’s impressive.
You have been quoted as saying, “Great music can be quite comfortable and relaxing, and you can sleep — as long as you don’t snore.” If you ever caught someone sleeping during a performance of yours, wouldn’t you be offended?
No, I wouldn’t be offended at all. The important thing is that the person has a positive experience. Being hypnotized by music to the point that you drift off to another place isn’t as bad as it seems. And anyway, you shouldn’t sit there focusing on staying awake. You’ll miss all the best parts. Follow the music and the things that interest you, instead.
Will we be lucky enough to hear anything from your “27 Pieces” project?
That is a project for violin and piano together, and I am still premiering those works. It is a big part of my life at the moment; maybe next time I’ll have some solo versions ready to go.
Hilary Hahn with the Utah Symphony
When • Friday and Saturday, Nov. 16-17, at 8 p.m.
Where • Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City
Tickets • $27-$77, at www.ArtTix.org or 801-355-2787
On the program • Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 (“Jupiter”), the Adagio movement from Mahler’s Symphony No. 10 and Korngold’s Violin Concerto.