The Classical Note: One Week, Three Female Superstars. Who Impressed the Most?

Three of classical music’s superstars—violinist Midori, pianist Olga Kern, and violinist Hillary Hahn—performed in Dallas last week in quick succession, and, at one point, at the same time in adjacent concert halls. This unofficial festival of instrumental divas forcefully and convincingly reminded us of the special power a female soloist brings to the concert stage.

Of the three, Midori, who played a recital of Beethoven, Webern, and Crumb on October 30 at the Nasher Sculpture Center, draws the least notice to her gender, national origin, or generation. Although she is the first female Japanese violinist to attain the level of international fame she holds this recital hardly differed in any way—except for the inclusion of a work by Crumb—from what one might have heard from a male artist of European or American extraction twenty, forty, or even sixty years ago.

Pianist Kern, however, who played two nights later at the Winspear Opera Houses (the first piano recital in that three-year-old facility) radiates, along with her remarkable musical instincts, a glamour and presence that brings to mind Garbo and the Redgraves—along with  a level of technique and stamina that recalls Horowitz. Opening with an almost unknown work of Beethoven (the Salieri Variations) and continuing with Schumann’s Carnaval, a set of Chopin Etudes, and two of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsodies, she continually impressed with her ability to combine drama and intelligence. Moreover, she constantly communicates a sense of her own significance as an artist along with the idea that she exists to serve her audience and her art. I first heard her as a hugely gifted 21-year-old pianist at the Cliburn Competition’s auditions in Moscow in January of 1997. She won the Competition’s gold medal on her second try, in 2001, and continues to develop both as an international personality of the first order and as a musician and interpreter of the sort who will thrill and inspire audiences for many more decades.

Even as Kern presented the single performance of her Dallas recital, violinist Hahn, now 32, appeared in the first of four consecutive performances with the Dallas Symphony and music director Jaap van Zweden at Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center. Hahn and the orchestra sandwiched Austrian-American composer Erich Korngold’s hyper-romantic Violin Concerto in D between Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3 and the same composer’s Fifth Symphony. Although a petite presence physically, Hahn, in the superstar tradition, created a gigantic emotional presence in her performance of the concerto. Because of Korngold’s success as the creator of film scores, the academic and critical establishment has long resisted accepting this work into the standard repertoire. Hahn’s beautiful and emotionally on-spot performance make a strong case for the piece.

In short, while the aura Kern and Hahn create isn’t an essential part of the musical experience, it is a tremendous asset toward giving the artist a chance to “sell” a piece of music and a performance, and it can be a great aid toward creating an ambience that allows the audience to completely appreciate a performance.

And, because of that, I’m all for it.

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As for the logistics of Kern’s recital, the artist herself, who didn’t seem to mind playing on a Yamaha grand rather than the usual Steinway, was flawless, and the venue, designed to show off great operatic voices, served well. But other aspects of the evening were inadequate: the one-page program leaflet failed to list the separate movements of Schumann’s Carnaval, which is information essential to a real understanding of the piece on the part of the listener. And some audience members, as well as, apparently, the ushers, were unaware that it is not customary to bring food or drink into a piano recital, resulting in the clink of ice cubes as an unintentional accompaniment to the music.