Holly Mulcahy: A Concertmaster for the 21st Century

from HollyMulcahy.com, Photo by Bo Huang
from HollyMulcahy.com, Photo by Bo Huang

 

This week a gloomy story came out in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette following a $100,000 audience development study conducted by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Taken at face value, the study seems to have uncovered some troubling community perceptions. Despite having one of the world’s greatest orchestras in their backyard, the focus group of non-ticket buyers perceived PSO concerts as “boring” and “stuffy.” At least one commentator is pointing out the study’s limitations and attempting to delve deeper into the data.

Regardless, the idea that orchestras must fundamentally change in order to attract new audiences has become a cliche. In some cases, orchestras have resorted to common sense-defying gimmicks in the name of “innovation.” It’s important to acknowledge that classical music exists on a different plane from mass media culture. A similar focus group might find Shakespeare “boring,” but in the long arc of time, Shakespeare endures as pop culture fades. There will always be an audience for great music.

For audience development and community engagement built on passion and sincerity, look no further than Holly Mulcahy, concertmaster of the Chattanooga Symphony & Opera. Read Holly’s blog, Neo Classical  and you begin to get a sense of the power of personal connections. Last week, Holly generated excitement with her performance of Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto with the Chattanooga Symphony. The concert seems to have attracted both young and old audience members. In anticipation of the performance, which was attended by the composer, a local bartender developed a special “Higdon cocktail.” It’s not every day that a contemporary piece is met with so much excitement. If Holly Mulcahy’s success can be taken as a model, personal interaction and passion for the community are essential ingredients for twenty-first century audience development.

Jennifer Higdon’s Violin Concerto

Jennifer Higdon’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Violin Concerto was written in 2008 and premiered by Hilary Hahn. The first movement is named 1726, the address of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia (1726 Locust Street). Higdon is on the faculty of Curtis. In the first movement, I hear echoes of Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto (1:49-2:00).

Here is Hilary Hahn’s 2010 recording with Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vasily Petrenko:

Here is the second movement, Chaconni. The barn-burning third movement, Fly Forward  was inspired by visions of an Olympic race.

Hilary Hahn: In 27 Pieces

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Violinist Hilary Hahn and pianist Cory Smythe at the 57th annual Grammy Awards earlier this month in Los Angeles.

 

Earlier this month, violinist Hilary Hahn and accompanist Cory Smythe picked up a Grammy award for their 2013 album, In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores. The recording came in first in the Best Chamber/Small Ensemble category.

Don’t be deceived by the album’s title. This isn’t yet another CD of violin showpiece warhorses. It’s a collection of completely new music born out of an intriguingly fresh idea. Hahn noticed that, while the violin repertoire is full of short encore pieces from the past, few contemporary composers have ventured into this territory. After careful consideration, she approached twenty six composers (a process she now jokingly compares to asking someone out on a date) for commissions. A twenty-seventh composer, Jeff Myers (The Angry Birds of Kauai), was selected through an online contest. You can check out Hilary Hahn’s informal discussions with each composer at her youtube channel.

It will be exciting to see if any of this music finds its way into the standard violin repertoire. Only time will tell. In the meantime, we have a fun CD to enjoy: Jennifer Higdon’s Echo Dash sounds like its title and suggests the dense counterpoint of J.S. Bach. David Lang’s Light Moving takes us on an exciting neo-minimalist joyride. Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis’ Coming To evokes a cinematic atmosphere. Lera Auerbach’s lamenting, romantic Speak, Memory suggests the twentieth century sounds of Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Messiaen.

And that’s one of the more interesting aspects of this recording-the way the present meets the past. Contemporary composers seem liberated from the need to be “new” or to push forward a dogmatic idea. Ukrainian pianist and composer Valentyn Sylvestrov says,

I do not write new music. My music is a response to and an echo of what already exists…With our advanced artistic awareness, fewer and fewer texts are possible which, figuratively speaking, begin ‘at the beginning’… What this means is not the end of music as art, but the end of music, an end in which it can linger for a long time. It is very much in the area of the coda that immense life is possible.

Two Pieces by Valentyn Sylvestrov: