By Chris McGovern
The Stone is a very small, limited space venue in the area of New York known as Alphabet City. I get there and the place is totally covered in metal guards with no sign. If it weren't for the small but devoted conglomerate of people waiting to get in for the first of 2 sets of the CD party, I would have completely missed the place.
Fast-forward through the long but adventure-packed wait to be let in, and when we sat down, the chairs were set up in diagonal rows facing the middle of the floor where the grand piano was (Was it a baby grand? There wouldn't have been room for a concert one), and each chair had 3-page leaflets with Hilary Hahn and Charles Ives' pictures on the front with the words "The Hilary Hahn Hymnbook" underneath, and on the other pages were the lead sheets of 4 hymns. I immediately knew that these songs were related to the Ives Violin Sonatas as all 4 sonatas are filled with them. More people were let in and told to stand by the wall since the chairs ran out.
Wearing a new maroon-colored dress, Hilary came out with Cory Smythe, pianist for the evening, and Jan Swafford, Ives author/specialist, and himself a composer. Hilary introduced the evening by saying "Welcome to the Ives CD geekout party!". It was a setting that had the all-too familiar quirkiness of Hilary Hahn, the lady that does interviews with fish, or sings "Happy Birthday" to Schoenberg like Marilyn Monroe when she isn't making music. We would be getting that same brand of quirkiness on this night as well as her brand of sweet and passionate beauty of the violin, all in the name of dropping her new CD "Ives: Four Sonatas" and raising money for the venue simultaneously. When we were told to get up and sing the hymns as a congregation would at a church service, my first thought was "This is weird", but after we had been singing "In The Sweet By And By", "Watchman, Tell Us Of The Night", "Shall We Gather At The River" and "Nearer My God To Thee", it was clear that Hilary and Mr. Swafford were allowing us to hear what the community in Charles Ives' life was like back in the day, and even though we were sort of hijacked into it, I have to say, I had a blast singing "Nearer My God". Plus, I also realized "We are singing with Hilary Hahn!" She played to sheet music with her reading glasses and Smythe accompanied us as well, and although it's as close to a musical collaboration with Hilary that I'll ever get, it was a great opportunity.
After the core themes had been established, Hilary then performed two of the violin sonatas, Nos. 1 and 4. Even though I was seated where I could barely get a full image of everything, Hahn had the room, and it was just as exhilarating hearing her play in a small dense space with no reverberation as it would be hearing her in a big hall where it would fill the place up with nothing but reverberation. There was such a crisp clarity of her violin in that tiny hot room (I hope some of our dollars that the show raised go into an AC system for The Stone) and even though Smythe was playing pieces he had just learned, despite a little shakiness, he definitely made a great effort in playing the complex piano part, one that you simply can't fake as it is every bit as important in those sonatas.
The roles of the piano and violin were even talked about during the discussion portion of the night, when Hilary had asked composer and artistic director of The Stone, John Zorn to file through the sea of chairs and come up and join the panel. Hahn, Zorn and Swafford talked about what Ives' music represented, what led to it, the indifference towards it by peers and audience of the day, and what his music inspired. Hilary talked about the difficulty of learning the pieces as a musician. From what I can see, she approaches music the same way actors approach roles, and working from the inside out of the music was challenging for her. Other than the roles of the two instruments, in which Hahn and Zorn noted that Ives seemed to really push the complexity of the piano part and that the pieces were for "Two instruments going at it", Zorn talked about the progressiveness of Ives, and one quote of the night of his was "Everything is OK in Ives' language". Swafford mentioned that the commune of the room was all about what Ives wanted, despite the Christianity of the church hymns, Ives was speaking to the "universality and community" of them. Hilary has had panel discussions like these before--At her LPR gig in 2010 for the Violin and Voice CD she discussed Bach's music with David Lang and another panel of musicians.
The evening was wrapped-up in perfect Hahn-like fashion as she led us into "Happy Birthday" for Charles Ives as his birthday is Oct. 20. "Happy Birthday Dear Charlie!" We heard great music, we learned some things, we got silly moments like Hilary joking about the heat by quickly fanning herself. I hope Charlie was there in spirit. I look forward to the next geekout!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
By Chris McGovern