Artist of the Year:
Hilary Hahn

By Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim

Once a teenage star, now a mature, thoughtful artist, Hilary Hahn inspires thousands through her riveting live performances, deftly programmed recordings, and revolutionary practice videos. Emerging from the crucible of the pandemic, the musician may have changed, but music-making is more important than ever.

2023 Muscial America Artist of the Year:<br>Hilary Hahn
Photo © OJ Slaugther

In June of 2021, Hilary Hahn stepped in front of a live mic and a carefully spaced, masked audience in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt to perform one of the most difficult violin concertos of the mid-20th century. Recording Alberto Ginastera’s concerto live was always going to be a high-wire act: few violinists dare to attempt this temperamental showpiece, which begins with an extended cadenza full of double-stopped passagework that is as fiery as it is exposed. 

The date for the concert recording, with Andrés Orozco-Estrada at the helm of the Frankfurt Radio Symphony, had been planned years earlier, along with a series of other performances that would have given Hahn time to inhabit the piece before committing it to disc. But the pandemic had nixed all those concerts. Aside from a run-through with a rehearsal pianist, she had prepared the Ginastera concerto and the virtuosic Carmen Fantasy by Sarasate alone, at her home near Boston, with a practice mute on her instrument so as not to disturb the neighbors. 

In a phone interview, Hahn spoke of the doubts that nagged at her as she arrived in Frankfurt. “I was just hoping the preparation was enough,” she says. “I reached a bit of an existential moment where I didn’t know what I could do anymore.”

In the event, she said she was buoyed by the energy of her colleagues and the sheer power of the live orchestral sound. Reviewing a video of the concert, she said, she could see the moment where she came to a new understanding of herself as an artist. “I felt as if I had walked through fire and then re-emerged,” she says. “And on the final note I thought: ‘This is me now. This is different.’”

For Hahn, who has rarely been out of the spotlight since her teens when conductor Lorin Maazel became her champion, it had been an especially long absence from the concert circuit. In 2019, the three-time Grammy winner had taken a season-long sabbatical, which was followed almost seamlessly by the pandemic lockdown and then a sputter of small-scale performances and cancellations that tested her patience. “Not performing for that long was really difficult because I didn’t have the emotional outlet,” she says. “Whereas playing with other musicians in a public setting, I found that this connection of energies was ultimately the only way I could begin to understand everything I had experienced.” 

Since her precocious beginnings, Hahn has built a multi-faceted career. The high-wattage brilliance and crystalline projection of her sound has always been her calling card—even in the Bach Sonatas and Partitas, which many violinists now render in the more muted glow of historical performance practice. But her repertoire keeps expanding around the core Romantic concerto showpieces: she has been a passionate advocate for the Schoenberg concerto as well as for new works by composers including Edgar Meyer, Jennifer Higdon, and Einojuhani Rautavaara. She is also deeply invested in a startup,, that explores applications for artificial intelligence in music education and composition.

Rare among soloists of her stature, she has sought ways to extend her commissioning energy into the wider music community. After she commissioned a colorful array of short encores from a wide range of composers, captured in the 2013 album In 27 Pieces, she went on to publish the sheet music, supplemented with her own detailed performance notes. Generosity and a matter-of-fact insistence on music as a collaborative art distinguish her at every step, whether in her thoughtful and lengthy replies to interview questions or in her interactions on social media.

Hahn’s openness to new technology helped ease her isolation during the pandemic. Now that most presenters rush to resume business as usual, she says she would like to see virtual residencies, livestreams, and global premieres continue.

“There has been a lot of pressure on composers during the pandemic to produce their work, no matter what,” she says. “But when it’s a solo piece, you have the opportunity to say to a composer: ‘when you have the inclination and the urge, and are between projects, write me a short work! I’m here, I’ll organize everything.’ With a short solo piece, I can program it anytime.”

By way of example, she cites the hyperkinetic Isolation Variations, which she commissioned from composer Michael Abels in 2020 as part of her virtual residency with the Philharmonic Society of Orange County. At the live online premiere in December of that year, she says, “everyone could tune in. We had listeners from all continents; some people were up in the middle of the night. I did a little chat session right after. It was fantastic.”

The commission from Abels, a composer known for his scores to the films Get Out and Us, was part of Hahn’s efforts to diversify the perspectives she helps give voice to. “After George Floyd was murdered, I spent a lot of time figuring out why I didn’t have equitable representation in my work,” she says. “I looked at what the gaps were and what had stopped me from noticing them.” 

After that, she says, she made a concerted effort to broaden her reach, from the composers she commissions to the students she teaches in master classes. “The risk, when we keep following the same patterns, is that we hear the same things,” she says. “But the arts are the emotional document of history. It’s important to invite all experiences to get involved.”

Inclusivity has long been a factor in Hahn’s vibrant presence on social media. The Twitter account ostensibly managed by her violin case draws one of the most active followings in classical music (currently over 135,000 followers). Her blog, Postcards from the Road, balances thoughtfulness with a breezy, conversational tone. But her biggest impact has come through #100DaysofPractice, an unvarnished glimpse into the working routine of an international star. Over the course of several iterations, her daily practice videos have energized over 700,000 musicians and other followers on Twitter to share and discuss an element of the creative process that is vital, yet often shrouded in shame.

Initially, Hahn says, she documented her practice to hold herself accountable. She had seen her own attitude shift from ‘studying for a test’ to a more sanguine process of self-discovery. “What I love about practice now is the ability to spend time with something without being rushed,” she says, “the chance to give yourself breathing room in your playing.” 

At the same time, the mere act of documenting her routine changed it. Outside of one of her 100-day public practicing streaks she might videotape a session and review it briefly, scanning for particular trouble spots. Uploading each video forces her to spend more time with it. “I was just checking that it was posting properly,” she says, “but then the next day I would be very familiar with how I had played the day before, and suddenly I had an idea of how I wanted to practice that day. So, each time I’ve done it, I’ve made some major change to my playing in a way I could never have planned.”

To Hahn, the online comments confirm that practice is one of the most misunderstood topics in music. It takes place in private. Few teachers address it. “Most people are told what they need to work on for the next lesson,” Hahn says. “The conundrum is that you are in a room by yourself trying to do something that you don’t know how to do. It’s like being given an IKEA kit to assemble and no tools. You have to bring [it] into your lesson in two days, and if you can’t figure it out or and come up with the tools, you blame yourself and are perhaps even graded negatively.”

Hahn says the current culture leads to unnecessary complexes. Too often, she says, practice is like looking in a mirror and being told to pick out everything that is wrong with you and fix it. “You can get to where you see what is wrong, but you can’t fix everything,” she says. “It’s better to look at what you do like, lean into that, and streamline your feelings about everything else.” The goal, she says, is to “become a more integrated musician and then take the mirror away and go live your life.”

Even so, in the run-up to the Ginastera recording Hahn came up against her own demons. Spending so much time in the hall of mirrors of her own practice routine, without the feedback from live audiences and collaborators, she says she began to lose sight of her own sonic identity. In normal times, she would have refined her interpretation of a new piece over several performances, a process she likens to metal that is exposed to fluctuations in temperature. “When you heat it up and cool it off it changes,” she says. “I didn’t have that experience of molecular change.” 

Once concerts resumed, she says, finding her sound happened naturally. “As I got back out into things, the momentum picked me up. What was clear to me was that I never want to let this go, ever. Before, I thought that if this didn’t work out, I could do something else. Now I know: no, there is nothing else that for me is comparable.”

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim is a writer and the founder of the deep-listening concert series Beginner’s Ear. A longtime contributing music critic for The New York Times, her work garnered honors including the 2021 Virgil Thomson Award for Outstanding Criticism. You can subscribe to her newsletter on mindfulness and music at