On Wednesday we went to hear the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Or see them, I suppose, but anyway, to sit in those ridiculously uncomfortable seats in the Dunedin Town Hall while they played some bits of music. We lucked out and got the row just near the stage where there is sort of an aisle and thus some leg room. The conductor was Pietari Inkinen, a young man with amazingly well cut hair and a glittering future ahead of him,both as a conductor and as a violinist by all accounts. He led the NZSO through a very lively and accomplished performance of a cycle of tone poem by Bedrich Smetana, whom I had never heard of though no doubt I should have. Then there was a short break while the chairs were shifted about - the musician's, not the listener's - and an expectant hush as the people in the white ties and/or black dresses all took their places. Pieari Inkinen walked out again, confident and self assured, and stood on his little platform. Then a young woman in a scarlet dress emerged from the wings, through the orchestra, and everything in the theatre changed.
Hilary Hahn is about the same age as my son Nick and has been playing the violin since she was three years old. She finished university at age 16 but stuck around anyway for the sheer joy of learning. She is a smallish woman: "elfin" was the first word that came to my mind on seeing her, but I think more in keeping with Tolkien's elves than Enid Blyton's. She has pale skin and longish dark hair, and is quite beautiful, though I suspect that if you met her on the street you might pass her by without giving her too much notice. But not on stage. From the moment she bowed and turned to nod at the conductor and give him permission to start, I don't think anybody in the theatre looked at anybody other than her. The orchestra played- or rather, she played and the orchestra supported her- Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D Minor (op 47). Her musicianship was extraordinary, but what was memorable was her presence: the sense of her being. She moved continually but seemed to emanate, paradoxically, a great stillness. When not playing she looked around her, watching the orchestra the way a manufacturer might survey a perfectly running factory, with a proprietary sense of expectation and knowing. Her face was collected and calm and still. Her slight hands and the muscles of her shoulders moving and tensing as she became and as she made the music. It's a cliche I know, but she owned the stage; owned it more than anyone I have ever seen in any discipline before. I know it is one concert I shall remember for the rest of my life, and I suspect I shall be boasting for years to come that once I heard her play.
She left the stage after countless curtain calls and the orchestra continued with an extremely polished, emotionally rich rendition of the Pathetique - Tchaikovsky's one, not Beethoven's. What went before Hilary Hahn and after her was well worth the entrance price, but it was her that I think of now. It is the sense of a human spirit which has somehow found the ground; that she is being, more fully than most of us manage, what she was intended to be from before the dawn of time