Hilary Hahn is the quirky virtuoso. • Sure, Hahn is one of the world's great violinists, a former child prodigy who made her debut at age 11 with the Baltimore Symphony, signed a major record deal at 16 and has put out 14 albums (including a pair of Grammy winners for concertos of Brahms, Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Sibelius) on the Sony Classical and Deutsche Grammophon labels. She once said she had played some solo Bach every day since she was 8. • On Wednesday, Hahn and pianist Cory Smythe give a recital at the Straz Center, mixing and matching works by Bach, Corelli and Fauré with a series of encores that the violinist commissioned. • But for all her intense concentration in performance, Hahn, now 33, is a free spirit. On Twitter, for instance, she posts in the persona of her violin case (@violincase): "Dispatches from the snitch that is international violinist Hilary Hahn's instrument case. Rants, raves, snippets, tidbits, insider info — the full case study." • "Hilary and I love New Mexico! Sun! Clear air! (Neither of which I can take advantage of, but they look pretty.) Nice breeze! Warmth!" read a recent tweet. • So what's up with the violin case?
"I think it's nice to have a different perspective, and the violin case does that," Hahn said in an interview last week. "It's not always my opinion. The violin case is not me. It has its own take on what's going on."
The violinist gets her say on her website (hilaryhahn.com), where she writes entertainingly about life as a touring artist. On YouTube she has posted many videos, most of them more or less conventional (interviews with musicians she plays with, for example), but also plenty that are delightfully loopy.
A favorite: "Hilary Hahn Interviews a Betta," in which she conducts a one-sided Q&A with a tropical fish in a tank ("So, what made you decide to become a fish"), a droll spoof, I presume, of the many interviews the violinist does. (The fish is silent.)
Hahn frequently takes a kind of cinema verite approach, uploading videos of everyday events that capture her fancy, such as a car being towed in Rio de Janeiro, a rainy day in Door County, Wis., a boy playing accordion on the street in Bremen, Germany, and fans photographing the violinist in Seongnam, South Korea.
"I have a laptop and my phone, that's it," Hahn said. "The Internet makes it easy, though sometimes on the road I'll go weeks without a good connection from one hotel to the next. It can be really hard to post the videos."
Hahn has done interviews on YouTube with many of the 27 composers who responded to her request to write encores, short works for violin and piano. At the Straz, she will be playing several of these by James Newton Howard, Richard Barrett, David Del Tredici, Mark-Anthony Turnage, Valentin Silvestrov and others.
Silfra is Hahn's latest CD, and it is a sharp departure from the classical repertoire that she typically plays, though she has performed with the likes of alt-country singer-songwriter Josh Ritter and folk singer Tom Brosseau. With 12 tracks of improvisation, it's the culmination of her two-year collaboration with Volker Bertelmann, a German pianist who goes by the name Hauschka and plays his instrument "prepared" with things like pingpong balls on the strings to make new sounds, an approach pioneered by John Cage. They recorded it in Iceland with Valgeir Sigurosson, a producer who has worked with Bjork.
"We made the whole thing in 10 days," Hahn said. "It was completely improvised. I was curious about what it was like to start from nothing and create something with someone. We didn't start with the intention of recording at all. We thought we might end up with an EP. It was more like a musical creativity conversation. But when we went into the studio, we ended up with a lot of material in just a few days. We started narrowing it down and realized we had a record."
Silfra is kind of hit or miss, but several of the pieces — say, Godot, the longest, at about 13 minutes, or Clock Winder — have the odd, mesmerizing, haunting quality of something fresh. Hahn acknowledged that it is a long way from the Bach, Corelli and Fauré she is playing on her tour, but for her the music is all connected.
"It's really enriching, and I bring everything I learn there back into the classical music I do and the creative process of interpreting it," she said. "In the performance sense, I find that interpretation is improvisatory in nature. You can go anywhere with an interpretation on any given day."
John Fleming can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8716.