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Music review: Hilary Hahn wrangles Tchaikovsky with Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall

December 11, 2010 |  2:14 pm

If Hilary Hahn seemed overly determined to have her way with Tchaikovsky on Friday night in Walt Disney Concert Hall, you could hardly blame her. The Russian composer’s violin concerto tends to pop up at least a couple of times a season somewhere in the neighborhood.

At the Hollywood Bowl the last three summers, an old-school Baiba Skride, an elegant Nikolaj Znaider and a hyped-up Gil Shaham played it with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In Disney Hall two years ago, the Dutch violinist Janine Jansen gave a radiant account of the concerto with the orchestra. Earlier this year, a whiz-bang young violinist, the 24-year-old Stefan Jackiw, was soloist with the Russian National Symphony in Cerritos.

Hahn, who was joined Friday by Spanish conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and the L.A. Philharmonic, managed, nevertheless, to stand out among the high-powered competition. She is a willful player. She possesses the concerto, not the other way around. She has the raw technique and the big sound to do with the score what she wants. She was more than willing to expand upon Russian sentiment, to draw out a phrase, to give a syncopation a little hiccup so you’d be sure to notice that she noticed.

There is an intelligence to her playing. Now 31, she made her name as a teenager musically serious and sophisticated beyond her years, playing Bach. She plays Tchaikovsky like that too, like Bach -- serious and sophisticated, finely calculated. She restores the small cuts most violinists feel tighten the piece. That also gives her an extra minute or two to shine.

And shine she did. But the price she pays for her ideas, even her interesting ones, was an overriding awkwardness, a sense of twisting Tchaikovsky to her needs.  

Frühbeck was a wry, cavalier accompanist. He deferred to his soloist, letting her do exactly what she does on her recent recording of the concerto, conducted by Vasily Petrenko. But in the purely orchestral passages, Frühbeck seemed to have a jolly time moving things along.  

The Tchaikovsky concerto is paired on that recording with a new concerto by Jennifer Higdon, written for Hahn and awarded a Pulitzer Prize. People have been raving about the Higdon -- attractive music that shrewdly, if inoffensively, advertises Hahn’s flexible virtuosity and magnificently reverberant tone.

Tchaikovsky, though, didn’t write what was thought suitable for the violin; rather, he pushed the boundaries. Hahn remains in her comfort zone, technically advanced though that may be and inquiring though her mind is (she has a YouTube channel in which she interviews artists), and she insists upon her boundaries. Maybe it is just coincidence, or the fact that she likes to get around, but Hahn’s concerto recordings are all with different conductors.

The Tchaikovsky straitjacket removed, Frühbeck  turned to Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” after intermission. He freely waved his liberated arms, leaving, like a character in a cartoon, swatches of color in their wake.

He is perhaps too gracious a musician to get terribly carried away by Berlioz’s delirium in this programmatic symphony, but the 77-year-old Spaniard did seem to have something special up his sleeve for every section in the orchestra. The ballroom music of the second movement received an extra added snap from the trumpets. Whenever Frühbeck  turned to the winds, be it for high-energy sparkle or pastoral elegy, a surge of electricity shot through the hall. The percussion -– and there is a lot in Berlioz -– proved a consistent pleasure. From the strings came soul.

After Sunday’s matinee, Frühbeck will fly to New York to pick up the Musical America conductor of the year award at a ceremony in Carnegie Hall. After this commanding yet generous performance, there was no need to question why.

-- Mark Swed

Los Angeles Philharmonic with Hilary Hahn and Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos; Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., downtown L.A.; 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday; $44-$167; (323) 850-2000 or

Photo: Violinist Hilary Hahn in soloist in Tchaikovsky's violin concerto with conductor Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Friday night. Credit: Kirk McKoy/Los Angeles Times.