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Hilary Hahn’s fish video and life lessons from Carol Channing

Hilary Hahn often said the main drawback to the life of a traveling concert violinist is the lack of pets. She’d love to have a dog. When she was a youngster at the Curtis Institute of Music, she reportedly had a guinea pig named Penelope.In the past few weeks, she has posted a video on You Tube in which her rapport with the animal world takes a new twist: She interviews a Siamese fighting fish. She asks what made it decide to become a fish. Was it a long-term life goal? How does the fish feel about living in a bowl? She waits for the unheard answers, reacting thoughtfully and respectfully.

Is the video a commentary on what it is like to be an exotic creature such as herself growing up in a high-visibility profession? Or is it a reflection – as critic Alex Ross has suggested – of having suffered through too many bad TV and press interviews? Either way, the video touches on the oddly symbiotic relationship between celebrity musicians and the news media, how they need each other, if momentarily, no matter how much animosity there might be between them.

The power dynamics are oblique and shifty. From the musicians’ side, they’re compelled (and sometimes pressured) to participate in the marketing process by granting press interviews. But such obligations steal their study and practice time – and the time thief can often be an interviewer with maddeningly little understanding of what they do.

Often, the journalist often needs the story much more than the celebrity needs to tell it. Sometimes, interviewers have to withstand withering condescension as well as reactions based what they represents rather than who they are. Such qualities don’t translate into print because they come through in the inflections, not the choice of words. And the more famous the musician, the less the journalist can risk walking out empty handed without looking bad to their superiors. In my experience, the master of that kind of manipulation, the Heifetz of condescension, is conductor Lorin Maazel.

Leonard Bernstein once called me an asshole because I forgot to tell his cook that I’m a vegetarian. He’d been drinking and didn’t mean it. But he also knew I couldn’t print it in a mainstream newspaper. Pinchas Zukerman uses street language to be earthy and charming. It works – and suggests he’s giving you trade secrets (whether or not he is). And while you’re doing your pre-interview background research on Yo-Yo Ma and Simon Rattle, they’re being briefed on you. There are many ways to answer a question, and if they know your major points of reference, they’re more likely to be fully understood.

Until now, Hahn has had a relatively sweet relationship with the news media. Why wouldn’t she? Hahn isn’t just one of the best in her generation but changes the longtime course of performance practice. Her Elgar Violin Concerto suggest what the piece might’ve sounded like with its original dedicate, Fritz Kreisler. She makes the most difficult music communicative, her Schoenberg Violin Concerto for example. Her forthcoming  Deutsche Grammophon disc of Ives violin sonatas is a godsend: Though the composer’s juxtaposition of dissonant chords with hymns and folk tunes often sounds crusty, she makes the music sing with a succulence nobody else has brought to it. Hahn is also a good writer – I’ve read some of her speeches. Yet her fish interview is strangely devoid of wit. And besides, she seems to mock the news media with surprisingly cheap shots.

Certainly, I’ve asked dopey questions. When I was younger, it happened  more than periodically – and the interviewees had little to gain by putting up with me because I was working for small publications. I was a bit like the kid reporter in the film Almost Famous, running around backstage at rock arenas interviewing pop stars such as James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon and asking them God knows what. I’m sure they knew I was inexperienced, and within their firm time boundaries, were invariably kind. At one point, I was sent into a round-robin press conference with Carol Channing, whose exterior artificiality made her something of a caricature except when having a serious discussion about the theater or aiding some poor, foundering journalist such as myself. She is perhaps the kindest of all. Liza Minnelli and the late Patrick Swayze are close behind her. I’ve seen Minnelli, in particular, field offensive questions without missing a beat.

I appreciate interviews with no pretense of why we’re there. After exchanging opening pleasantries with Kathleen Turner, she said, “All right, let’s get to work.” Yes, we were there to work, not to have a pretend friendship. Most straightforward of all was retired soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. She started on the offensive: “Fantasy! Fantasy! All everybody writes about me is fantasy! And you will write fantasy too! I see you can’t write as fast as I talk!”

“That’s why I brought a tape recorder,” I said, moving my face a little closer to hers with a slight smile. “I’m very good at this, you know.” And then everything was fine.

Question is, why did she agree to an interview when she was initially so pessimistic about its outcome? She was in her 80s. She didn’t need the publicity. She hinted that she was worried about money – which was why she was authorizing the release of so many live performances from her prime. There had been lots of questions about her Nazi party membership during World War II. And she was widely feared for demoralizing young singers during her master classes. In subsequent phone conversations with her, it was clear that she cared deeply about how she was perceived and how she would be remembered after her death. Isn’t that true of everybody – on one level or another? But it’s not my job to take on that kind of emotional baggage. I’m there to tell the most accurate story possible. My interviewing objectives are simple: Were I give the opportunity to be that person, what would I want to know?

Unfortunately, though, journalism is a sink or swim profession. Reporters are often recruited on the spot for all kinds of things for which they’re barely qualified. Nobody wants to a stupid reporter, but with fewer and fewer arts journalists, more generalists are attempting to talk to musicians such as Hahn. And if she can’t abide by it, maybe she shouldn’t talk to the press. That can be frustrating on my side. One instance of that was my coverage of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s recent tour of Europe: Everybody was pretty chatty except for chief conductor Charles Dutoit. That’s too bad for him, because talking to the press is one way to control what gets into print. But nothing good comes out of an interview with an unwilling participant. In the one 20 minute session he granted me since becoming the orchestra’s chief conductor, he seemed strangely uninterested in discussing the business at hand and wasted many precious minutes on what was on his mind that day (which happened to the benefits of a classical education).

Worse yet are the interviews with a strong undercurrent of hostility. One such encounter was with an up-and-coming soprano probably wasn’t pleased with a recent review in which I acknowledged her once-in-a-generation vocal gifts but also pointed out that she was under-prepared. She agreed to the interview anyway – I’m told out of loyalty to the school from which she was graduating as a star pupil. She shouldn’t have done it. At one point, she reacted to a perfectly neutral question by lashing out – never saying what was on really on her mind but taking imperious exception to a technicality. She ruined what could’ve been a productive longtime press contact and represented her institution in an unseemly way.

I often tell people that working with me is like cataract surgery: You need to have a commitment to the situation, a bit of good will and a fair amount of faith that the results will ultimately be beneficial. And in this era when journalism has a much longer half-life on the internet, a good piece can have longer lasting benefits. And I’m very good at this, you know. But without commitment, good will and faith, time is wasted and the damage can be permanent. Hilary Hahn is well short of the permanent damage zone. But one can cross that invisible line instantaneously.



  1. Kelly Holt says:

    Buoyantly crafted observations and a joy to read!

  2. Chris McGovern says:

    Well-said, Mr. Steams, well-said.
    I’ve been writing pieces on my blog for a short time now, but I love doing interviews, and so far nobody’s lashed out at me, thank goodness! But what are we to do when artists aren’t interested and seem to have a half-hearted commitment to it on their end and would rather keep that to themselves until it’s too late? At the same time, you want them to be cooperative and comfortable with the interview. I do it for absolutely free, by the way.

    As for Hilary, when I saw the video for the first time, I thought that she was suffering from long-tern stress from all those practices, and we perhaps lost her to an excursion of madness, but the video definitely can be read as a commentary on frustration with certain media practices, and I know she was never a fan of empty questions. She used to say that in the early days she’d respond to certain questions with another question (Example: “What kind of music do you like?” was answered with “What kind of music do YOU like?”). BTW, I know that if I talked to her, i wouldn’t ask that anyway! But you can’t blame her for venting about things like that when artists in a much bigger spotlight get the general media attention where people come at them and have no clue who they really are and what they are about.

    This is a great piece. Thanks for posting it!

  3. Laura Kennelly says:

    Close to damaging though. I’m glad I hadn’t seen that when I had to interview her. Of course, she’d probably ask me boring questions too if she were assigned an interview with me about my life and work. Probably she needs a rest and some quiet time.

    As it was, some years ago, she was gracious and charming when we talked. I agree, though, that some artists just seem as if they have more to say (and say it better and more comfortably) than others–Bobby McFerrin, for one (so much more there than just “don’t worry, be happy”) and Jullian Fellows, for another. They seem quite comfortable with who they are.

    Enjoyed your essay.

  4. Chris McGovern says:

    Of course, it’s also possible that she did this as a PR stunt to generate sales for the Ives CD. Look at how perfect the timing is, several people blogged about it the same week.

    • I think she’s too classy for stunts. If she wanted to promote the recording, she would probably have a release party.

    • John Hall says:

      Musicians should focus on the music. If this were a PR stunt, that would be sad. Musicians who try to become “personalities” are a big turnoff. It’s one step closer to hucksterism and one step further from being an artist.

      The video is a clever move on her part, even if it was not intended to be clever or carry subtext. Most will find the video amusing innocent and cute. Those who do not can be derided as lacking a sense of humor or reading too much into it. Meanwhile it carries a message to interviewers to stop being so pedestrian.

      I admire her cajones. She seems to have reached a point where she has enough clout to feel confident about telling a contingent to shove it. I hate giving interviews so I’d have cut my media commitments to 1/10 of previous if I were in her shoes. Just enough to avoid out of sight or out of mind. That would be quite a luxury.

      • You remind me of Spalding Gray, who pursued a policy of what he called “horizontal celebrity” – doing just enough to maintain his health insurance and the ability to do the next project. Part of my point, though, is that the media hasn’t been offensive to her – at least that I’ve ever seen – just perhaps “pedestrian” as you aptly put it. That’s annoying, no doubt, but without any ill will. Also, I don’t think that anybody elects to be pedestrian. – DPS

      • Chris McGovern says:

        I really admire Hilary both as an artist and as a humorist (you should see her when she has the rare opportunity to speak to an audience, she’s a riot) but the video is a bit awkward if it’s meant to be funny. I just had the theory that she did it so that there’d be heavy discussion with tons of speculation that could possibly maybe lead to more people wanting to hear that new recording of hers, so, that’s not such an bad or unusual thing in this day and age when CD sales are not so sweet.

  5. Perhaps it’s the relentless grind that is pedestrian, not any one journalist or experience. Personally, I found it quirky and humorous (especially the awkward pauses!). I didn’t find it malicious at all – just playfully satirical. And I find it refreshing that she uses the internet to share with fans; I don’t suspect it’s all that calculated.

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