For decades, the Prague Spring festival closed with a grand but predictable flourish: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. In recent years the final concert has been given over to more flexible programming – nothing too bold, as there is a 69-year tradition to uphold. But Prague audiences are always intrigued to see what visiting orchestras do with the Czech repertoire. And a fresh young face put a forward-looking spin on this year’s finale.

Hilary Hahn © Michael Patrick O'Leary
Hilary Hahn
© Michael Patrick O'Leary

That would be American violinist Hilary Hahn, who personifies a new generation of players in more than just her youthful appearance, which can be deceiving. At 34, she has 20 years of professional performing experience and 16 releases on Sony Classical and Deutsche Grammophon to her credit. She is an advocate of new music, most recently with her In 27 Pieces: The Hilary Hahn Encores release, for which she commissioned 27 new works from contemporary composers.

Like a pop star, Hahn works at staying connected to her fans. She is an active blogger and Twitter and Instagram user, and has her own YouTube channel. She sat in the audience for the second half of the concert at Prague’s Municipal House on Tuesday night, and signed autographs afterward. In short, Hahn cuts a familiar and accessible profile in a profession that often seems at a distant remove from its audiences.

This attitude also informs her performances. On Tuesday she played Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major with Paavo Järvi and the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra, a piece she knows well. It won her a Grammy on her third album, and she played it with the Frankfurt orchestra earlier this year on a seven-concert tour of Germany, Turkey and Austria.

Hahn showed impressive technical command of the piece, with a particularly dazzling cadenza in the first movement. But what stood out was her sound, which can best be described as sweet. Her fluency gave the music a seamless flow, without a single note sounding forced or labored. There was not a hint of calculation, guile or ego in her style, just a sunny openness that imbued the music with a warm, emotional glow. In less skillful hands, it might have sounded naïve, but Hahn gave the piece a personality that was both appealing and smart.

The performance also attested to the value of playing together regularly. The fit between soloist and orchestra was markedly good. Even with Hahn and Järvi barely exchanging glances, the surges in tempo and volume ran in polished parallel, and the breaks were like an exercise in breathing together. Järvi also struck a fine balance with the orchestra, providing crisp, colorful support for Hahn without stepping on any of her lines.

After the intermission, the orchestra put its own stamp on Dvořák’s Eighth Symphony. From the opening bars, the sound was expansive and the rhythms almost aggressive in their driving insistency. It was the Eighth as a thrill ride, with even the soft, melodic themes of the second and third movements delivered in an exhilarating rush.

The caliber of the orchestra could be measured in the clarity of the playing. Expanding the proportions of a piece that size typically adds some density to the sound. Not in this case. If not perfectly transparent, the sound was notably clean and well-defined, with Järvi using the horns and percussion to add accents and impact. The symphony flattened out a bit in the fourth movement, with the theme developing an oom-pah-pah rhythm and then the final section taking off like a cavalry charge. But the interpretation sat well with the audience, which gave the orchestra a rousing send-off.

Performers in Prague traditionally get flowers as they’re taking bows, and this concert must have emptied an entire floral shop. Hahn literally could not hold all the huge bouquets she was handed. And as Järvi and his players were standing for applause at the end of the evening, ushers were bringing huge sprays up the center aisle to plant at the front of the stage. As a punctuation point on a different type of festival finale, the lush floral display mirrored the performance – colorful and fresh.