Review: Hahn-Bin at the Norton Center

Hahn-Bin performed 'Romanian Folk Dances' by Bela Bartok accompanied by pianist John Blacklow with page turner Sara Beth Freytag at the Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts on Sept. 30, 2011. (c) Herald-Leader staff photos by Rich Copley.

Photo gallery: Hahn-Bin at the Norton Center | Review: Midori with the Lexington Philharmonic

DANVILLE – Was that the future of classical music we saw Friday night at Centre College’s Norton Center for the Arts?

It certainly was a violin recital unlike most of us have ever seen. Classical music has had artists such as Nigel Kennedy challenge the strictures of the genre. But it is still a field where Anne Sophie Mutter wearing strapless gowns passes for edgy.

Hahn-Bin blows way past all of that.

Hahn-Bin performed in Episode Three, '2 a.m. on 2nd Avenue' in his program 'Till Dawn Sunday.'

The Korean-born violinist presented a two-hour performance to a sold-out crowd in the 370-seat Weisiger Theatre with numerous gender-blurring costume changes and a vague storyline of romance, mourning, defiance and celebration. The program titled Till Dawn Sunday was made up of four sections featuring music of Mozart, Tcaikovsky, Ravel and many other composers of traditional repertoire along with modern names like Astor Piazzolla, John Williams and Harold Arlen.

Episode One, The Ghost of Your Love is at My Dinner Table, introduced the musicians in masks with a cloud of smoke, Hahn-Bin wearing feathered wings and a feathered hood as he played Vittorio Monti’s Csárdás. In the episode, he wandered the stage, slouching in an cozy chair in exhaustion and sitting at a cafe table stage left with two glasses of wine, one drank from and one not, and a single red rose that seemed to represent the aforementioned Ghost. Through the night, Hahn-Bin appeared in a gold dress, a long kimono-like outfit and finally a street-smart pair of jeans and a tank top, initially under a dark trench coat in which he played a rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that ranks up there with Judy Garland or Israel Kamakawiwoʻole. He did most all of it in 6-inch heels – the man loves his heels.

Through the performance, we could see the young man who favored wandering modern art museums and avant garde fashion houses when not practicing his violin. There is a kinship there with the performance art of Lady Gaga’s shows, though Hahn-Bin is operating at a fraction of her budget and may be well served by engaging a stage director to help him find a few more dramatic options the next time he puts together a show.

Inevitably, because classical music has such a narrowly defined idea of what performances should be, an artist like this gets the question, what are you compensating for? What is it in your work that comes up short, so you have to make up for it with all this flashy stuff?

Friday night’s performance answered, nothing. Fleet and nimble with his fingers and wielding the bow like it was a natural appendage – albeit one that he liberally shredded – Hahn-Bin’s performance was thrilling and evocative, and his musicianship ultimately carried the evening. If you closed your eyes and listened, it was clear this would have been an exhilarating performance even if the violinist was in a regular haircut and formal-wear on a bare stage. His Act I-ending performance of Bela Bartok’s Romanian Folk Dances even seemed calculated to say, I’m going to make your forget I’m a man up here in heavy makeup, a gold dress and six-inch heels by playing the hell out of this piece.

But the props, the costumes, the movement all seemed to fuel Hahn-Bin, and he showed an uncanny ability to take this diverse repertoire and unite it in his instrument.

In is not a style of performance all artists want to or should emulate. But classical music should make room for it. After all, pop music has its Lady Gagas and its Bruce Springsteens showing numerous approaches to music making. Hahn-Bin’s performance showed that in classical music, theatrics can complement, not compromise virtuosity.

It is not the future of classical music, but it could be a future.

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