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Violinist Hilary Hahn talks Twitter, touring before Wednesday show

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 (, 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.

If you go

Virtuosity by three

Three top-level violinists play recitals in the area. The details:

Joshua Bell, with pianist Sam Haywood, at 8 p.m. Friday at Ruth Eckerd Hall, Clearwater. $50-$100. (727) 791-7400;

James Ehnes, with pianist Andrew Armstrong, at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Van Wezel Hall, Sarasota. $40-$70. (941) 955-0040;

Hilary Hahn, with pianist Cory Smythe, at 8 p.m. Wednesday at Ferguson Hall of the Straz Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. $45. (813) 229-7827 or (800) 955-1045;

Joshua Bell: What

is a sonata, exactly?

Joshua Bell has been living with sonatas since he gave his first full recital at age 12. Beethoven's first violin sonata was on that program, and since then Bell has played the classic sonatas for his instrument by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Franck, Saint-Saens, Debussy and all the rest. He and pianist Sam Haywood have three sonatas on their program at Ruth Eckerd Hall Friday: by Schubert (actually a sonatina, or short sonata), Richard Strauss and Prokofiev.

For all its ubiquity in classical music, a sonata — the term is Italian — is not exactly something listeners may understand particularly well. Technically, it is a work of several movements, usually three or four, that includes (to harken back to Music Theory 101) an exposition of themes, development and recapitulation, followed by slow and fast movements, all relating to the whole.

During an interview, Bell, 45, had this to say about the form: "I think there is something very pleasing about the sonata form to the listener, just the shape of it. Composers kept going back to it because it's a formula that works very, very well. If you look at a classic country song, they use a kind of mini sonata form, the ABA form or the ABBA form, and it's the same with a classical sonata. I think the mind of the listener just grabs onto form."

Bell, whose latest CD for Sony Classical has him conducting and playing concertmaster with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields in Beethoven's Symphonies No. 4 and 7, worries that listeners are unaware of the structure of the music he performs.

"With classical music, you need to understand the forms for it really to be fascinating and interesting," he said. "Same with jazz. When you understand the choices they're making and what it's based on, it's just so much more interesting. Jazz and classical music take some brain activity. Unfortunately, music for a lot of people has become like wallpaper. You either dance to it or have it on in the background, but the art of listening to music is very important as well."

James Ehnes: You can go home again

For Floridians, it wouldn't be far off to call James Ehnes a snowbird. He's a Canadian with a home in Bradenton, though he spends much of his time touring the world as a concert violinist. He'll get to sleep in his own bed when he gives a recital, with pianist Andrew Armstrong, at Van Wezel Hall Tuesday.

Ehnes, 37, has been recording a lot of Bartok lately, putting out a series of CDs of the composer's works on the Chandos label. His second volume of Bartok's works for violin and piano (with Armstrong) was called "nothing short of spectacular" by the Toronto Star. Curiously, Ehnes and Armstrong are not slated to play any Bartok in their Sarasota Concert Association program, which includes music of Fritz Kreisler, Bach (Partita No. 2), Prokofiev (Five Melodies) and Saint-Saens (Sonata No. 1).

Violinist Hilary Hahn talks Twitter, touring before Wednesday show 02/20/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 5:30pm]
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