Review: Hahn solo the star in NZSO's new hope
By Max Rashbrooke
August 8, 2022
New Zealand Symphony Orchestra conducted by Gemma New, with Hilary Hahn (violin). Music by John Rimmer, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Brahms, Tabea Squire, Adams, Ravel, Chausson, Rimsky-Korsakov. Michael Fowler Centre, 4-7 August.
Hilary Hahn is one of those players who, even in the stormiest moments, seems to carry around with her a little pocket of stillness. She has the technique of a virtuoso, but none of the bluster. Instead, she uses technique to make technique almost disappear, playing with such clarity and seriousness as to give every note its absolute due – and to make you forget that the hard passages might even be hard.
Over three nights at the Michael Fowler Centre, she treated Wellington audiences to a feast of violin-playing across a wide range of repertoire, in a perfect partnership with conductor Gemma New and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. On the first night, the most heavyweight in terms of material, Hahn was excellent in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. Although not possessed of the most ravishing tone, her playing was sensitive and thoughtful at times, sparkling and spectacular at others.
Not to be outdone, New and the NZSO gave a poignant account of New Zealand composer John Rimmer’s Lahar, and a superb rendition of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5. Some of the orchestra’s best playing in recent memory, it featured a beautifully sculpted first movement, counterbalanced by a glinting, hard-edged second. The work’s satirical undermining of Russian imperialism – never more relevant – was brilliantly conveyed.
In the second performance, anchored by Brahms’s mammoth Violin Concerto, the understanding between soloist and orchestra was if anything even better, and the sound from the latter rich and rounded. This was followed by John Adams’s dramatic Doctor Atomic Symphony, based on his opera about America’s era-defining first atomic bomb test in 1945. A long trumpet line, expressing the internal anguish of Manhattan Project leader Robert Oppenheimer, was among the highlights. Also, excellent was young New Zealand composer Tabea Squire’s Variations, an ingenious variation (if you will) on the variation format, the theme – a 16th-century dance tune – cleverly kept back until the end.
The last concert, a Sunday afternoon performance targeting a younger audience, spoke to Hahn’s generosity and desire to build new audiences, alongside her musicianship. For once the latter briefly let her down, as she had to twice restart a passage in Chausson’s free-flowing and lyrical Poème. Not that anyone minded. Alongside two delightful fairytale-inspired works – Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade – we were treated to a third Hahn encore of the series. A fine and perfectly formed diamond, just like its predecessors, it was an exquisite encapsulation of her musical gifts.
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