by Eric Bergeson, January 25, 2012
Provocative Korean-born violinist Hahn-bin pranced and preened his way across the wood floor of the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks last Sunday as a part of the NDMA's annual concert series.
"American classical music audiences are half asleep,” the unusual prodigy said in a recent interview, adding that it is the performer's obligation to wake them up.
From the time Hahn-bin dramatically threw off the black silk veil which concealed his face as he advanced toward the stage, there were no naps to be had.
Half geisha, half mime, half Mick Jagger, half Vladimir Horowitz, tiny Hahn-bin's enormous stage persona consumed the room.
That adds up to four halves, which is about right.
The test of a classical musician, to me, is his or her ability to suppress the hacks and wheezes of audience members in the late stages of tuberculosis who drag themselves to the concert hoping to be healed.
Hahn-bin waved his bow like a wand over the January crowd and healed the sick. As he stretched thin the most quiet, yearning phrases, not a creature stirred, not even the uncomprehending infants brought by doting parents to absorb Hahn-bin's genius by osmosis.
Classical concerts in this country are stiff, high-church affairs. People forget that 200 years ago, classical music was the rock music and audiences came to have a good time.
A common source of discomfort for all present is the constant anxiety over when it is appropriate to applaud.
No matter how stirring a movement, according to etiquette you aren't supposed to clap until the third movement has concluded.
But at many concerts, some hick from the sticks who somehow made it through the screening process feels moved by the first movement and innocently starts to clap.
Other rubes follow, and soon a smattering of applause threatens to shatter the dignity of the occasion.
The snoots, who are too busy being snoots to actually hear the music, glare at the the rubes and stare them into silence. Snoots live for such delicious moments of superiority.
It is class warfare, and it has divided our country for decades.
Well, Hahn-bin had an announcement made before the event: The right time to applaud is when you feel like it.
You could sense the relief in the room, at least amongst we rubes.
But the stress level soon rose again as Hahn-bin's pianist approached the stage dressed head-to-toe in black leather and sporting a theatrical feather mask.
It got higher as the be-veiled Hahn-bin himself swooped in with an exaggerated sense of drama.
Good grief, I thought. He's going to have to be pretty good to pull this off.
But pull it off he did.
First, Hahn-bin pulled off his veil, revealing stunning theatrical make-up that made the audience gasp.
Then he pulled it off with energetic and inspired playing that turbo-charged the difficult but familiar classical pieces on the program.
My suspicion that Hahn-bin took inspiration from Mick Jagger was confirmed when his second costume change featured a shirt printed with dozens of Rolling Stones logos.
Sometimes Hahn-bin laid on the floor. Other times he stomped on the floor to accent a phrase. Sometimes he sat in a cushy chair. And one time he ended up standing atop the piano.
I checked the piano afterwards. Hahn-bin's big boots made tiny scratches in the finish. You don't stand on a piano without making scratches, I discovered once in my own home after some dinner guests left.
But Hahn-bin probably will be allowed to leave scratches wherever he wishes. Maybe they'll have him autograph the scratches with permanent marker.
Classical music concerts can be trying. Usually, given the difficulty hearing unamplified instruments from a distance, it is best just to stay home and listen to a recording.
But at the old wooden museum, Hahn-bin's rich tone flowed over the small but capacity crowd like melted butter.
Hahn-bin is only starting his career. He recently debuted at Carnegie Hall and showed up on the Today Show.
The chance to hear his talents in a small venue will soon vanish.
Hahn-bin's next trip through Grand Forks will probably bring him to the big auditorium with cushy, sound-absorbent chairs where I once strained to hear his great teacher, Itzhak Perlman play.
More seats, more money, less reward.
Those of us in the crowd last Sunday were lucky indeed. We saw a rising star up, close and more personal than we would have at Carnegie Hall.