Hilary Hahn Plays for Pope, Nuptials, Surprise Proposal

Violinist Hilary Hahn is taking the next few months off and won’t say where she’s going.

“It’s not on this continent” is as close as she’ll come.

Of course, she does deserve a break after touring the world, most recently with German composer and pianist Hauschka, with whom she has recorded the improvisational album “Silfra.”

Known for her classical repertoire, Hahn has been branching out: She just announced the winner of her online Encore Contest, the final stage of a project commissioning more than two dozen short, virtuosic works.

Wearing a navy-blue dress, cowboy boots and gold jewelry, Hahn, 31, sat down with me at Bloomberg world headquarters in New York City.

Tarmy: You are going to tour and record “In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores.” What made you want to commission so many new pieces?

Hahn: I thought it was important to bring new music into the encore genre because people were writing it, but I wasn’t seeing it stick.

If you bring some focus to something, people become more aware of it and it helps the thing to grow.

If I count up the encores generated through this project, including those I commissioned and those written for the contest, it comes to about 430 new works for violin and piano.

Winning Encore

Tarmy: “The Angry Birds of Kauai” by Jeff Myers is the 27th encore. How did you choose the winner?

Hahn: I prioritized what I could play well. I’m not a composer, and I can’t necessarily look at a score and say, “Oh, this is an ingenious piece.”

I know what works well on a violin. And then I thought of what would also be good for other people to play so that the music can really take root.

Tarmy: You wear incredible gowns for all of your performances. Where do you get them?

Hahn: They find me. One time I saw a beautiful Oscar de la Renta gown on the cover of the Bergdorf catalog, but I said to myself, “I can’t go into the store because I love it too much.”

Then I forgot about it until I looked on EBay Inc. (EBAY), and there was the same gown, eBay pricing, and in my size. I thought, “Okay, I don’t have a choice. It was meant to be.”

Papal Audience

The only exception is when I played for the pope and needed a gown that covered my shoulders on short notice. I was super lucky -- I happened to go into Escada and there it was.

Tarmy: Did you get to meet the pope?

Hahn: Just in passing, on stage. That was my audience with the pope, in front of 6,000 people. But I’m not complaining.

Tarmy: Other than the Holy See, do you do private concerts?

Hahn: I’ve played friends down the aisle, house concerts, and I once played someone’s proposal.

Tarmy: How did that work?

Hahn: The couple’s first date had been a concert of mine, so when he wanted to propose he got in touch with my management.

We came up with a plan where he would bring her backstage at Avery Fisher Hall to meet me, and I would say, “Oh, I’ve got this piece I’ve been working on -- would you guys like to hear it?”

And as I played, he got down on his knee and proposed. I was really happy to be a part of it.

Tarmy: You’ve had the same Vuillaume violin since you were 14. Would you ever switch?

‘Part of Me’

Hahn: It’s part of me, and that’s also why I don’t know how much it costs, because I’m not going to sell it. I laugh about this with other violinists who have instruments that would be considered “investments.” We’d probably part with our house first.

Tarmy: Would you ever consider another career?

Hahn: I’m really glad I ended up a musician. I get to do a lot of creative stuff that isn’t necessarily playing the violin.

So if I have other interests I want to pursue, I can do them without the pressure of making those my career.

So for me, having a lot of interests is actually the ideal career.

(James Tarmy writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Craig Seligman on books.

To contact the writer on the story: James Tarmy in New York: Jtarmy@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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