[11 December 2013]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
This album is a highly specialized release. Over the years, classical violinist Hilary Hahn has been commissioning composers to write encore pieces for her. Encore pieces, for those who don’t attend many classical performances, are brief compositions that soloists may save for the end of the night to show off a particular musical skill. Many encore pieces sneak their way into a musician’s practicing repertoire where they learn them by rote, earning the ability to perform them anywhere and at any time. Hahn, a musician who likes to keep an eye on the modern developments of classical music while playing all the old stuff people pay to hear, noticed that no composers were chipping in to create new encore pieces for violin and piano. Hahn set out to right this wrong by reaching out to 26 established composers, asking for an encore composition apiece for her and pianist Cory Smythe to record. She then put out an open call to have a piece composed by a less established composer, taking the total number of composers to 27. In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores is a double album spanning close to two hours in length. Your opinion of it will depend upon just how hard you are willing to work to listen to the works through Hahn’s ears.
The list of names Hilary Hahn solicited to make this album happen can spur some double-takes, in a “she called them?!” kind of fascination. Mark-Anthony Turnage, Elliott Sharp, Max Richter, Gillian Whitehead, Richard Barrett, Einojuhani Rautavaara and all the rest are a result of Hahn perusal through the back catalogs of these composers. The 27th name, Jeff Myers, was the winner of Hahn’s open contest. With 27 different authors, In 27 Pieces ought to reflect 27 different personalities. The subjective observation that they don’t may just be a reflection of the fact that violin and piano encore duet pieces don’t guarantee variety. To the listener on the hunt for memorable themes and anchored musical forms, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores is modern classical gone amok. Being a fan of contemporary music is not a prerequisite for this album—one’s predisposition to any form of classical music turns moot over the course of the 27 tracks. This is why absorbing the music through Hahn’s perspective likely suits it better. They were written for her and are being performed by her. So who’s receiving the dividends here?
Much happens within these short pieces. In “When a Tiger Meets a Rosa Rugosa” by Du Yun, it sounds like Hahn managed to play every note that’s available on the violin. But as far as taking sharp notice of a figure and then processing the music as something more than histrionic exercises, I could walk away with only a few instances. Avner Dorman’s “Memory Games” was one, though the piano part Smythe is required to play grows more obtuse as it goes along. One that has more success in standing out is “Ford’s Farm” by Mason Bates thanks in part to an Aaron Copland view of the violin’s ability to combine idioms. Mark-Anthony Turnage wrote a wonky square dance number with “Hilary’s Hoedown”, one that unorthodoxically combines a folksy form with odd harmonies. Even when there are threads to grasp, the elusive nature of the music keeps it a few steps ahead of you.
The rest of In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores requires even more effort, or at least it feels that way. Separating the sounds from academia is a chore that Deutsche Grammophon usually doesn’t traffic in, but that’s where the fun is to be had. When listening to In 27 Pieces, I unwittingly find myself setting up camp in the dying afterword of K. Marie Stolba’s The Development of Western Music: A History where the professor laments the loss of more traditionally minded composition for the 20th century onward. You’ve got to believe me, it’s not a place I want to be.