Arts Global

23 February 2011

The New York Times

Hahn-Bin Straddles Classical Music and Fashion

by Alex Hawgood

When the young violinist Hahn-Bin appeared onstage for a recent matinee at the Morgan Library and Museum, a gasp trickled through the audience, which consisted mostly of silver-haired classical-music enthusiasts. Clad in a black sleeveless kimono, dark raccoon-eye makeup and a high mohawk, the soloist resembled an apocalyptic Kewpie doll.

Hahn-Bin (who uses only his first name) slunk across the stage with his instrument, propped himself atop a piano and whipped his bow toward the crowd, more ringmaster than concertmaster. He then tore into works by Chopin, Pablo de Sarasate and Debussy, with some enhancements: At one point the pianist John Blacklow placed Hahn-Bin’s bow into the violinist’s mouth, while Hahn-Bin plucked his violin like a ukulele.

“Have you ever seen anything like it?” one female audience member whispered to a friend.

“No,” she replied. “I’ve never heard anything like it, either.”

Despite sharing a lease at Lincoln Center, the classical-music and fashion industries tend to be mutually exclusive. But for Hahn-Bin, a 22-year-old protégé of the eminent violinist Itzhak Perlman who holds Mozart and Warhol in equal esteem, they are complementary.

“What I choose to wear or how I choose to express myself visually is equally important as the music itself,” he said in a recent interview at Le Pain Quotidien on Grand Street. “Fashion teaches spiritual lessons. It has taught me who I am and showed me what I didn’t know about myself.”

Hahn-Bin is a rare bridge between Carnegie Hall, where he will make his mainstage debut on March 13, and the Boom Boom Room, where he performed at a party hosted by V Magazine during New York Fashion Week. He is the latest in a series of classic-musical provocateurs who have included the German virtuoso Anne-Sophie Mutter, famous for her strapless ball gowns; and Nigel Kennedy, a genre-bending, hard-partying Brit.

“The classical-music world needs to be shaken up a little bit,” said Vicki Margulies, artist manager for Young Concert Artists Inc., which selected Hahn-Bin to perform at the Morgan. “And he’s the one to do it.”

Hahn-Bin credits Mr. Perlman and the star architect Peter Marino, who financed his New York concert debut in 2009 at Zankel Hall, part of Carnegie Hall, for teaching him how to straddle two cultural worlds. “The only person that understood that I was a genre of my own was Mr. Perlman,” he said. “He gets that I have always been a performance artist who sings through the violin.”

In a phone interview, Mr. Perlman said: “He is an extremely talented violinist who is very, very individual. He combines music with drama and a visual element. It’s very personal to him. When an artist feels it that personally, the audience does, too.”

Hahn-Bin’s diverse group of fans also includes the fashion personality André Leon Talley, the art maven Shala Monroque, the magazine editor Stephen Gan and the gallerist Barbara Gladstone. “In the context of classically trained musicians, he is quite startling, as they are hardly given to personal theater,” Ms. Gladstone said.

He collaborated with the video artist Ryan McNamara on “Production,” a performance at the Louis Vuitton store during Fashion’s Night Out last year, and he walked the runway for the designer Elise Overland last September. This month, he performed at the Stone, an art space in the East Village, in a show curated by the musicians Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson; and played soliloquies inspired by the exhibition “Andy Warhol: Motion Pictures” at the Museum of Modern Art.

“The movement, his body, his clothes, his style, his dramaturgy and the music, of course, form one strong, complex, multilayered audio-visual image,” said Klaus Biesenbach, chief curator at large for the museum.

Hahn-Bin said that defying genres in this manner is an intrinsic part of his personality. “I have never identified as Asian or American, boy or girl, classical or pop,” he said.

He was born in Seoul, South Korea; his family moved to Los Angeles when he was 10 so he could study at the Colburn School of Performing Arts. As a teenager, he would tell his mother he was going there to practice the violin, then sneak off to see performances by Ms. Anderson or the avant-garde playwright Robert Wilson. He moved to New York in 2004 after being accepted into Juilliard, where he quickly felt like “a strange fruit,” he said. His classmates didn’t understand why he studied the work of the musician Björk and the photographer Nick Knight along with Kreisler and Dvorak. “They would tease me endlessly,” he said.

Between classes, he’d shop at downtown boutiques like Seven New York and Yohji Yamamoto, then return to class decked out in Bernhard Willhelm and Martin Margiela. “Everyone’s jaws would just drop,” he said. “I fought with the deans constantly about what I could wear. They finally told me I can wear something all black. Naturally, I went onstage wearing a top that had a very deep V-neck. I will never forget when the orchestra manager ran to me backstage with a safety pin in horror.”

Hahn-Bin said that his use of fashion is part of an attempt to make classical music (“the new underground genre,” he said) relevant to a group of young people who may have been dragged to concerts by their grandparents. He also posts relentlessly on his Web site, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook. “He is speaking directly to his generation,” Ms. Margulies said. “This is his world.”

With these bells and whistles comes the occasional accusation that his persona distracts from the music. “There are many people in my field who have tried to tell me what I should and shouldn’t do with Mozart or Beethoven, even to this day,” he said.

But Mr. Perlman dismissed any idea that Hahn-Bin’s self-stylization is gimmickry. “It’s not like he is following a trend in classical music right now,” he said. “He is setting the trend.”

At the Morgan, this trendsetting included three costume changes from the kimono: a Karl Lagerfeld-esque tuxedo with an oversize flower pin; an asymmetrical shirt dress with an eye mask made from feathers; and a boxy red blouse with a plunging V-neckline, accessorized with a pair of Jeremy Scott sunglasses and thigh-high Rick Owens boots.

“Honestly, to get onstage and balance in my shoes is a lifetime achievement in of itself,” Hahn-Bin said. “Dancers have arms to help find their balance, but one of my arms, you see, is doing the most ridiculous things with the violin.”

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