Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin Review - Symphony Center Presents Chamber Music Series opens

Symphony Center Presents opened it’s 85th Season Chamber Music Series on November 1st, 2016 with a concert featuring two internationally known musical virtuosos, Hilary Hahn on violin and Robert Levin on piano.  Hahn is well known for detailed playing, with a strong “attack”, while Levin is a noted improviser. The program consisted of three works they performed together and one solo piece each, the latter pieces composed especially for the artists; they also performed a beautiful piece in encore commissioned by Hahn.

Hilary Hahn and Robert Levin; photo courtesy of Marcus Yam, LA Times

The concert opened with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Violin Sonata in E-flat Major, (K.481), 1785, a very mature work in 3 movements, each with it’s own structure. Mozart himself was an accomplished violinist- as was his father, Leopold, who wrote what was considered the most important violin manual of his time. Mozart, who composed duo sonatas for piano with violin throughout his life, demonstrated an equality between the keyboard and the violin in his compositions.  This particular piece has been referred to as “a marvel of construction and craft on every level”. Certainly, there is a strong give and take between the two instruments, with a lot of variation in the middle as well as the finale, joyous and abundant- a perfect set-up for Levin’s extravagant interpretation and Hahn’s rigorous phrasing.

Hilary Hahn; photo courtesy of Michael Patrick O'Leary

Second on the program was “Sonata No. 6 in G Major for Violin and Keyboard”, by Johann Sebastian Bach, (BMV 1019), 1717-1723, in 5 movements, part of a series of six works in trio sonata form; the keyboard portion was almost entirely specified by Bach and took equal terms with the violin. In fact, all six of the sonatas of which this is a part depart from prevailing tradition in letting both the harpsichord and the violin participate in equal fashion in the unfolding of the musical material. With these two top musicians, Hahn and Levin, the dialog drew the audience into the thematic/melodic experience.

After the intermission, Hahn performed the one of a set of 6 partitas for violin commissioned by her from Spanish composer Garcia Abril, “Partita No. 4 for Violin (Art), 2015;  Abril dedicated it thus because Hahn’s “performances are truly works of art”. The unusual and interesting piece- it is not a dance suite as the name “partita” would suggest- seemed perfectly suited to Hahn, who drew forth an enthralling run of complex harmonies in this modern single-movement piece of polyphony.

Hilary Hahn with violin; photo courtesy of Michael Patrick O'Leary

Next, Levin played “Traume  (Dreams) for solo Piano”, 2012, by Romanian composer Hans Peter Turk, a “semi-improvisational” work dedicated to and suggested to the composer by Levin about the content of Turk’s wife’s dreams during her final illness. The piece has been described as  “conjuring a stream of consciousness”. Levin’s strong hands, held wide apart, hovered over both ends of the keyboard, produced a haunting, moving piece with undertones of grief and sadness.

Hilary Hahn; photo courtesy of Michael Patrick O'Leary

Last on the program was Franz Schubert’s “Rondo in B Minor for Violin and Piano”, (D. 895), 1826, a strong, energetic, rhythmic work in a single movement of multiple tempos that builds toward a rich tension. It is a technically demanding piece for both instruments, lush and imaginative- again, a perfect foil for the interpretive genius of Levin and the technical virtuosity of Hahn and Levin both.

Hilary Hahn holding violin; photo courtesy of Michael Patrick O'Leary

Their encore consisted of “Mercy”, 2010, by Max Richter, a slow and lovely 5 minute long piece for violin and piano, from Hahn’s “In 27 Pieces” recording, 2014, a double album of 27 encores from 27 different composers. Lilting, lyrical and bittersweet, this was a piece, like the other newly commissioned works, which this reviewer would appreciate hearing many more times.

Hilary Hahn performing; photo courtesy of Michael Patrick O'Leary


For information about and other great concerts from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, it’s side series, and many programs, such as Symphony Center Presents, go to the CSO website




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