Review: Violin superstar Hilary Hahn headlines a fine night of chamber music

Violin superstar and Chicago Symphony Orchestra artist-in-residence Hilary Hahn headlined a thoughtful chamber music performance at the Symphony Center on Friday night. Skillfully accompanied by Seth Parker Woods on cello and Andreas Haefliger on piano, Hahn and company offered trios and duets spanning 200 years of musical history.

The first piece to be performed was the most recently composed. The full trio of Hahn, Woods and Haefliger took the stage for be still and know that it is, a play Carlos Simon wrote in 2015. Inspired by an interview Oprah Winfrey gave about the presence of God in her life, Simon reflected this spirituality in a soft, elegiac mood that permeated the play. He too is an artist in residence, but at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

The piano opens with a long rest, followed by slow, calm chords spread across the keyboard. Haefliger exploited this opening sequence for all the drama possible, and Hahn and Woods quickly joined in with weaving melodies that started out very soft but gradually built up. In a tonal key, it is a wonderfully meditative work in which the whole fits together perfectly.

Hilary Hahn and Seth Parker Woods delivered a tight Kodály. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

[B]I am still and I know ended as it began, with calm chords spread widely across the keyboard and a dramatic rest. As enjoyable as it was, it felt incomplete; he was headed for something that didn’t materialize. It made me want more.

The next program was the Duo for Violin and Cello, Op. 7, by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who, together with his friend Béla Bartók, spent many years preserving Hungarian folksongs from the first half of the 20th century. This three-movement duet from 1914 reflects these efforts by using folk melodies with a modern twist.

Hilary Hahn and Andreas Haefliger played a lesser-known Beethoven gem. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

At the same time, Kodály created an opportunity for the violin and cello to interact, which Hahn and Woods did with aplomb. There were plenty of back and forth passages where one instrument produced melody while the other offered rhythmic pizzicato and chords. Hahn and Woods were particularly effective on the highest notes of the register of their instruments. The opening of the Adagio-Andante was lovely, with Woods moaning a pure-toned melody, and Hahn responding in kind. Their together forces had a great time in the raucous finale.

After the intermission, Hahn and Haefliger take the stage with one of Beethoven’s lesser-known gems, Violin Sonata no. 10 in G major, op. 96. Beethoven wrote most of his ten violin sonatas early in his career as a composer. the said Kreutzer Sonata, nope. 9 in A major, Op. 47 years old, attracts the most public attention. It was a transitional work between the classical style that Beethoven inherited from Haydn and Mozart and the more romantic style unique to him in the middle period.

Almost ten years later Kreutzer Sonata in 1812, Beethoven only wrote one more violin sonata. Sonata no. 10, like Kreutzer, also represents a transition, this time from the stormy and passionate middle period to the late period, where subtlety and reflection are more important. As such, this work absolutely exudes finesse, while preserving the basic musical structure common to his works of the middle period.

Hahn, Woods and Haefliger take a well-deserved bow. Photo by Todd Rosenberg.

From the start, Hahn and Haefliger blended well. Hahn made her violin flow and sing, as if playing from memory, even though the music stand was present. Haefliger produced the whole panoply of feelings and transitions demanded by Beethoven. At first he played perfectly, but towards the end he got a bit sloppy. The performance was so good it didn’t matter.

After the initial encore, Hahn and Haefliger were joined on stage by Woods. They moved the clock forward a few decades for a nice encore: the D-Major Scherzo excerpt from Piano Trio No. D minor, Op. 50. It was a wonderful way to end this evening.