Violinist Hahn-Bin made headlines when he performed at the 2000 Grammy Awards at age 12. While he was there at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, he looked around.
"That was an event that really changed my life and how I saw myself as a performer," says Hahn-Bin, who played the Grammys that year in the formal attire typical of classical music. "Up to that point, I was following all the guidelines and rules that were set out for any serious classical musician. But when I went to the awards, I didn't see any difference between what I was doing and what Britney Spears was doing in the sense that we were both there to perform.
"That was an idea that up until then, as a 12-year-old, hadn't really occurred to me because I was just expressing myself. But to understand myself as a public performer was a pivotal moment for me."
He doesn't wear the concert formals anymore. The closest corollary to Hahn-Bin, 24, in pop music today might be Lady Gaga: Both are inspired by high fashion and transform themselves multiple times during performances to represent the music they are presenting. His performance of his program Till Dawn Sunday on Friday night at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts will include a variety of costume changes, and diverse lighting and props as he goes through a concert that will include works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Maurice Ravel, Pablo de Sarasate, George Gershwin and John Williams.
"When I was attending these conservatories like Juilliard, ... I felt that in the classical music world, what they want the soloist or any musician to be is to be a mannequin and to wear these great works of art by Beethoven and Brahms, and we are just there to show people how it hangs on us," Hahn-Bin says. "I wanted to wear these pieces. When I play to a crowd, I am truly living it and breathing it — I really live it.
"That is what I missed in my education, and Itzhak Perlman was the only person I met in my whole life that understood that I was different and understood what that is like. He is one of the few people in classical music to be what I aspire to be in the sense of being a pop artist. He communicates with the audience in a way that singer-songwriters would, and it's so organic and so personal."
Hahn-Bin worked with Perlman for more than a decade, and the legendary violinist knew what he was getting from the get-go.
"When I performed for him for the very first time, I did not perform as a violinist," Hahn-Bin says. "I performed as Björk. I did this performance-art piece based on a song by Björk, and I choreographed it, I designed the costumes, I had a fog machine, and that was my first performance for him. So he understood from the very beginning that my goal was to communicate with the audience and be a vessel for them, not a vessel for Beethoven or Brahms, but rather to share human experiences with the audiences."
Earlier this year, Perlman told The New York Times that Hahn-Bin 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 impatience is not with the music, which he says he respects immensely, but with the traditional packaging, which he aims to shake up and connect to pop culture.
He talks about being in New York and going to Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, Carnegie Hall and grungy Lower East Side clubs, and thinking each time, "This is where I belong."
"My dream come true is to have these worlds meet through my art form," says Hahn-Bin, who has attracted Carnegie fans to club shows and vice versa. "This is what I want to continue to perpetuate and build around the world between the art world, the classical music world and the young generation. I know their ears are open, and once they see me, they'll get it."