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Past Her Prime at 17? : Younger violinists are fast on the heels of Hilary Hahn. But she doesn't feel the heat.

November 28, 1997|JUSTIN DAVIDSON | NEWSDAY

PHILADELPHIA — In a studio at the Curtis Institute of Music overlooking Rittenhouse Square, three student musicians are playing a Dvorak piano trio, and the rich, brocaded textures of the music mix with the faded formality of the decor.

Like the rest of Curtis, the room has an air of shabby collegiate elegance: scuffed mahogany, an elaborate Victorian clock, an ornate table lamp manned by a porcelain grenadier, a threadbare Oriental rug punctured over the years by the endpins of thousands of cellos. The room is named for the great violinist Efrem Zimbalist, and in it the air is thick with history and dust. Over the grand piano is a large oil portrait of Zimbalist, and the shelves of a glassed-in cabinet are filled with his photos and mementos.

One of the young musicians entrusted with all this burdensome tradition is 17-year-old violinist Hilary Hahn, whose shoulders seem too small to bear it. She looks even younger than she is, with hair that belongs on a Pre-Raphaelite Madonna and the finely molded features of a Wedgwood figurine, but her fragility is deceptive. The sound she makes on her violin is sinewy and robust, and she possesses a discipline of granite.

She will need that hardness now. After years of being treated as a child star, Hilary is in danger of becoming obsolete just as her career is getting underway. Three years ago she was already being called "the next Midori," when the older violin prodigy was just 23. In a music business fixated on cub performers, it cannot be long before another teen claims the mantle of "the next Hilary Hahn."

"Today if you're 15, you're over the hill," said Jaime Laredo, her teacher at Curtis, where she has been a full-time student since she was 10. "Every time I pick up the paper, there's another 11-year-old musician. Pretty soon it's going to be an 8-year-old. People are so obsessed with this that by the time you're in your 20s, it can become a very difficult time. It was for me: There was the next young genius winner coming along."

Hilary knows that the business that now treats her like a princess can be fickle and cruel, and she, her parents, her teachers and her managers agreed years ago that her early professional life should be cautious, quiet and slow. "She could have been playing 100 concerts a year already two or three years ago," Laredo said. Instead, only recently did she make her New York recital debut, with a concert in October at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall. Her debut CD, "Hilary Hahn Plays Bach," also was released in October on Sony Classical.

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Hilary was born in Lexington, Va., and grew up in Baltimore--sort of. For seven years, she has been shuttling back and forth to an apartment in Philadelphia and dividing her life between her family home and Curtis' cloistered embrace. Her parents are casual music lovers, not musicians. Her mother, Anne, is a tax accountant at Baltimore Gas & Electric; her father, Steve, is a part-time administrator at the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and his daughter's full-time assistant and traveling companion. When her talent began to bloom, it took them by surprise.

Hilary began studying violin the way thousands of children do: in a Suzuki program, sawing away at infantile tunes in a chorus of tiny violinists. "I remember thinking 'Twinkle, Twinkle' was really long," she said. Within a year she wound up in the care of Russian violinist Klara Berkovich, a teacher who had had 25 years' experience at the Leningrad School for the Musically Gifted.

Even now, not so many years have passed since Hilary's early prodigy days. Recently, she took up a concerto she had last worked on when she was 9. The music was still there, encoded in her tendons and synapses--but her brain was still guiding the hand of a 9-year-old, and her fingers kept extending too far, overshooting notes she now can reach with ease but once had to stretch for.

When Hilary was 10, Berkovich encouraged her to play her first recital, to enter her first and only competition (the Concerto Soloists Competition in Philadelphia--she won) and to apply to Curtis. Hilary was still young enough to think of her preliminary auditions as fun, and while older candidates panicked and paced as they waited for the results to be posted, she sat peaceably reading Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court." A week later, after another round of auditions, the Hahns got a call from Gary Graffman, director of Curtis. Hilary took the news of her admission like a 10-year-old: She did a Buster Keaton pratfall and lay staring at the ceiling in shock.

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