Violinist Augustin Hadelich: Romancing the Tone

Niels Swinkels on April 12, 2013
Augustin Hadelich
Augustin Hadelich

Violinist Augustin Hadelich was born in Italy and grew up on a farm in Tuscany, but he calls himself “culturally German.” He notes that his parents were German immigrants to Italy and the family spoke German at home. His two older brothers played the cello and piano, and at age 5 Hadelich, who turned 29 earlier this month, chose the violin.

His father, an amateur cellist and the son of a violin teacher, taught him the basics, but, given the lack of high-level violin teachers in the Italian countryside, Hadelich’s parents enlisted the help of vacationing violinists to help hone their son’s raw talent. They also traveled with him to Germany and elsewhere in Europe to take lessons and master classes with, among others, Italian violinist Uto Ughi.

When Hadelich was 15, on the edge of the difficult transition from child prodigy to adult violinist, he was badly burned in an accident on the family farm. A large part of his upper body was affected, including his face and bow arm. Some doctors expected him to never play the violin again, but after a lengthy and often painful recovery he restarted his career two years later. “I didn’t play at all for about one year, and then it took a long time before I had enough ambition and energy to really decide to have a career as a violinist,” he remarks.

Hadelich graduated summa cum laude from the conservatory in Livorno and, at age 19, moved to New York to earn his graduate and artist diplomas from the Juilliard School. A breakthrough came in 2006, when he won the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. With the gold medal came the privilege to play the 1683 Ex-Gingold Stradivarius for a period of four years. The instrument was once owned by Russian-born violinist Josef Gingold (1909–1995), who founded the Indianapolis competition.

Hadelich debuts this week with the San Francisco Symphony under Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, playing Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61, from 1806. SFCV talked to him via phone from New York. 

Has New York become home?

Yes, it is now.

You must miss Tuscany.

For the first three years that I was in New York, I was not homesick at all. Having grown up in the Italian countryside, I really felt the need to live in a big city. New York was a really stimulating environment and I was surrounded by all these interesting, fascinating musicians and going to great concerts — very different from Italy! I had so much nature growing up that I was fine staying indoors all the time; I didn’t really miss it and went back only to see my family.

But the last few years I have sometimes caught myself feeling homesick and needing to see some trees. Now, when I go back to visit family, I appreciate much more how beautiful it is. I really took it for granted when I grew up.

Have you ever been to San Francisco?

I have flown through the San Francisco airport before but I don't think that counts. This is my first time ever visiting and I am excited. What I know about the city comes from movies and books. I am curious to see it for real.

How far are you usually booked in advance?

Planning times vary per orchestra, but I have known about this for a few months. I am replacing Julia Fischer. She canceled for personal reasons, but it wasn’t a last-minute thing, as some of my debuts have been.

In the U.S., orchestras generally don’t plan as far ahead as in Europe. Some European orchestras are already talking about 2016, which is ridiculous. I have no idea what I want to be doing in 2016!

Not even the Beethoven concerto?

That is one piece that I will never get tired of. I have already played it many times and the more I play it, the more I actually love the piece, because I understand it better. And I also think I play it better every time. That doesn’t happen with every piece.

The greatest performances of the Beethoven concerto are the ones that delve deep into the music and understand it most. The more you reflect on this music, the more you understand it and the better you play it.

The greatest performances of the Beethoven concerto are the ones that delve deep into the music and understand it most. The more you reflect on this music, the more you understand it and the better you play it.

What do you like about it?

What Beethoven wrote for the violin was very unusual at the time. People never understood his music at first. There is a lot of playing in the highest register of the violin, and the music is very exposed. The texture is very transparent. You cannot hide in the orchestra; you are very much out in the open.

I think that all violinists are grateful that Beethoven wrote this concerto. He revolutionized the form by expanding it; this concerto is much larger than any one that was ever written before. One of the challenges is to play it in such a way that you can understand the structure. Phrasing is incredibly important in this piece — it can really make or break a performance.

You were in a terrible accident when you were 15, almost half your life ago. Is it still a factor in your every day?

I no longer think about it very often. My recovery was completed a long time ago and I have a completely different life now. Of course, a dramatic experience like this shapes you and changes who you are. I wouldn’t be the same person without it.

It is perhaps because of this experience — because I had this moment where I wasn’t sure if I would ever play the violin again — that I appreciate what is happening in my life more. I really try to enjoy every moment. It made me realize how important music was to me. If I hadn’t been able to play anymore, I probably would have focused on composing or on some other way to live my life with music. But I am definitely very happy where I am right now.

It is never a mistake to spend your time composing. You will invariably gain a better understanding of the construction of the pieces that you are playing.

You have composed your own cadenzas, I believe?

Sometimes I compose my own cadenzas, but I haven’t made one for the Beethoven concerto yet. I don’t have much time to compose anymore. If you want to be a great composer, you cannot also have a career as a violinist; it is one or the other. But it is never a mistake to spend your time composing. You will invariably gain a better understanding of the construction of the pieces that you are playing.

Your repertoire includes every kind of music, from Baroque to very modern. How do you deal with the style changes?

There is a lot of great music for violin, and I love the variety of playing different kinds of repertoire. It is very important to play different styles differently. You have to change many things in your technique — the articulation, the way you handle the bow, the type of vibrato you use — so it also keeps you on your toes technically.

Even between composers from the same time period, there are huge differences; Paganini and Beethoven are not that far apart in time [Beethoven was 12 years older], but they require a totally different approach. You go from Paganini, which is basically like Italian opera, to the incredibly furious writing of Beethoven.

When do you study?

When I perform one piece, I don’t really play anything else. I may do some technical practice but I am not going to immerse myself in a new piece. In between concerts I always try to take a week off. That is when I relax, look ahead at what is coming up, and learn new music. I usually play all kinds of pieces at once.

How do you prepare for a performance?

During the day, I always play through the piece that I am performing that evening, even if there is no dress rehearsal. I play the whole piece, but not necessarily in “performance mode.” And because I come from Italy, I have to have pasta for lunch; that is a basic need. All these carbs give me enough energy for the entire concert. In the afternoon I usually rest. I take a nap or just conserve energy.

Do you still study with a teacher or mentor?

You get to a point where you don’t need any more violin lessons, but you always need feedback on music. The advice and feedback from conductors that I play with is often very useful. Conductors are very analytical in their approach.

Tell me about the instrument you play, and the one before that.

After winning in Indianapolis, I played the Ex-Gingold Stradivarius for four years, and then it went to the next winner. The instrument was made in 1683, which makes it a fairly early Strad.

The violin I have right now is the Ex-Kiesewetter, which is on loan through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. It was made in 1723, 40 years after the Ex-Gingold, in what they call Stradivari’s “Golden Period.”

I love both instruments, but the one I have right now is much better suited for playing concertos. The earlier Strads produce a smaller sound, so balance [with the orchestra] is always very difficult. The instrument was made for chamber music, for smaller spaces. The later Strads have much greater projection and a very big color range.

It was actually a bit tricky when I played Shostakovich with the Ex-Gingold. In his music, you sometimes have to play with a sound that is really bleak or depressing, but I sounded too beautiful! It was hard to make that work, to get that color right. My instrument didn’t really want to do that.

Do you just call the Stradivari Society and order a new violin? Or how does it work?

[Chortles] It is, of course, much more difficult than that. Everybody is constantly looking for instruments. For every Stradivarius, there are 30 violinists who want it. It was actually quite a difficult search.

I was playing at the Chautauqua Music Festival in upstate New York. The owners of the Ex-Kiesewetter, who live in Buffalo, were there and heard me play. They decided I would be a good fit for the instrument, and I think they were right. The instrument actually fits my approach to sound really well, and I have been very happy with it. It took a few months to really feel at home, find out where the tone color resides and how to produce it. That is different for every violin. But I knew right away that this was a great instrument.

There is a sweet, beautiful quality to its sound. You can turn it off if you don't want it. But it can sound really sweet, like syrup. It is very beautiful.

And is it suitable for Shostakovich?

Better than the Ex-Gingold. On this violin you can make an ugly sound. And in some music, there is a place for that.

Did you enjoy the article?

Sign up to our weekly newsletter to receive the latest articles every Tuesday