Violin superstar and Chicago Symphony Orchestra artist-in-residence Hilary Hahn headlined a thoughtful chamber music performance at Symphony Center on Friday night. Ably accompanied by Seth Parker Woods on cello and Andreas Haefliger on piano, Hahn and company offered trios and duos spanning 200 years of music 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 is, a piece Carlos Simon wrote in 2015. Inspired by an interview Oprah Winfrey gave on the presence of God in her life, Simon reflected this spirituality in a soft, elegiac mood that permeated the piece. He, too, is an artist-in-residence, but at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.
The piano opens with a lengthy rest, followed by slow, quiet chords spread across the keyboard. Haefliger milked this opening sequence for all the drama possible, and Hahn and Woods soon joined with woven melodies that started very quietly but gradually built up. In a tonal key, it is a wonderfully meditative work in which the ensemble perfectly meshed.
[B]e still and know ended as it started, with quiet chords widely spread on the keyboard and a dramatic rest. As enjoyable as it was, it seemed incomplete; it was building toward something that didn’t materialize. It left me wanting more.
Next on the program was Duo for Violin and Cello, op. 7, by Hungarian composer Zoltán Kodály, who, with friend Béla Bartók, spent many years preserving Hungarian folk songs in the first half of the 20th century. This three-movement duo from 1914 reflects those efforts using folk melodies with a modern spin.
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. Both Hahn and Woods were especially effective on the highest notes of their instruments’ register. The opening of the Adagio-Andante was lovely, with Woods wailing out a melody with pure tones, and Hahn responding in kind. Their ensemble strengths came through big time in the raucous finale.
Following intermission, Hahn and Haefliger hit the stage with one of Beethoven’s lesser-known gems, the Violin Sonata no. 10 in G-major, Op. 96. Beethoven wrote most of his ten violin sonatas in the early phase of his composing career. The so-called Kreutzer Sonata, no. 9 in A-major, op. 47, gets most public attention. This was a transitional work between the classical style Beethoven inherited from Haydn and Mozart to the more romantic style that is uniquely his own in the middle period.
Nearly ten years after Kreutzer Sonata in 1812, Beethoven penned only one more violin sonata. Sonata no. 10, like Kreutzer, also represents a transition, this time from the stormy, passionate middle period to the late period, where subtlety and reflection are more prominent. As such, this work absolutely oozes finesse, while preserving the basic musical structure common to his middle period works.
From the beginning Hahn and Haefliger blended well together. Hahn made her violin flow and sing, as if she were playing from memory, even though the music stand was present. Haefliger produced the full panoply of feelings and transitions called for by Beethoven. At first, he played perfectly, but toward the end, he got a bit sloppy. The performance was so good, it hardly mattered.
After the initial curtain call Hahn and Haefliger were joined onstage by Woods. They advanced the clock a few decades for a lovely encore: the D-Major Scherzo from Felix Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. d-minor, Op. 50. It was a wonderful way to end this evening.