Printer-friendly version interview with Augustin Hadelich

Laurie Niles

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Published: December 10, 2009 at 3:05 AM [UTC]

In the three years since winning the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Augustin Hadelich's career has taken flight. Hadelich's new album, called Flying Solo, may be so named because it features all works for solo violin, by Bartok, Ysaye, Paganini and Bernd Zimmermann. But it might simply be because Augustin spends a lot of time on airplanes these days, flying to debuts from Cleveland to Carnegie Hall, Los Angeles to Tokyo, winning the 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant and playing with orchestras the world over.

Augustin Hadelich. Image courtesy artist.
Image courtesy artist

The new recording is his third, the first being of three Haydn concertos for violin, for which he wrote his own cadenzas, and the second being Telemann Twelve Fantasies for Solo Violin, released in early 2009.

Born in Italy to German parents, Hadelich spent much of his early years taking lessons from various violinists who were on holiday in Tuscany, where he grew up on a farm. When he was 15, his life's activities came to a sudden halt when he suffered severe burns to his upper body in a fire at his family's farm in Italy – an accident that required two years of painful recovery.

I spoke to Augustin over the phone a few weeks ago, after meeting him at a recital he gave in Los Angeles. We talked about life on constant tour, about competitions and about the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivari violin he was granted for use until he hands it over to the next Indianapolis competition winner next  September. We also talked about how the violin helped him during his recovery from the accident.

Laurie: How do you cope with your schedule as a soloist, when you are in Santa Barbara one day, Berlin the next week, then back to New York, across the country to Los Angeles, then on an overnight plane to Indianapolis for a recital the next day, and all of this is in the course of a month. Then of course you are playing different music at all these concerts. What kinds of strategies have you figured out to handle it all?

Augustin: There are certain little tricks that you learn. First of all, anything, if you do it very often,  becomes easier. A lot of what stresses you out about flying is how you yourself feel about it. So I don't get very stressed any more at airports; I'm more used to it than I was a few years ago. If you are flying during the day, it's important to be productive on the plane. If it's overnight, you need to sleep.

Laurie: So one thing you have to cope with is the travel. How about having the repertoire ready?

Augustin: I don't have a specific method, but a lot of these pieces I've played many times before. It doesn't take as much preparation, but it does take intense preparation to get a piece at the highest level again. For some pieces, I can do that in the couple of days before a concert. I just work very intensely on it.

In certain pieces, it's always the same places that are an issue. The same goes for rehearsals with orchestras; regardless of what orchestra, where in the world, there are certain places that always need rehearsing. After a while, you just know where those places are, and you can make the rehearsals more efficient because of that.

A few years ago, when I first started to play this much, I sometimes made the mistake of practicing too many pieces at once. I was practicing ahead -- I was practicing what I had to play in a few weeks. Of course one needs to do that, but only up to a point. When I practiced too many pieces, then I didn't immerse myself in the piece I was playing that weekend. One needs to focus on (the upcoming weekend's performance pieces) with enough intensity, to be completely comfortable and at home in that style again, and in that work.

There are always at least a few pieces I'm learning that are new. For those, I make a plan for a few months or a half a year before the performance, so that I am working on it on and off, really trying to get to know it and internalize it.

Laurie: How did you get started with the violin?

Augustin: I started playing when I was five years old. My two older brothers were already playing instruments; they were playing cello and piano. I heard them practicing, and I wanted to play something, too. My parents had this vague idea of forming a piano trio...

: Did it ever happen?

: No, no. (He laughs) It never happened. It can be difficult for siblings to play together, and I think maybe it's just as well that we never did that.

But even before that, I grew up hearing music. I still have a great love for the cello repertoire because of I heard it so much at such a young age.

Laurie: Do your brothers still play, did they become musicians?

: They're not musicians, but they still play as a hobby.

So, I didn't know what I'd signed up for, because I was five. My father was not a professional musician, but his mother was a violin teacher, and he started teaching me the basics. He was my teacher for the first three years, essentially. It was tricky to find good teachers in that area of Italy where grew up (Tuscany), so I did some traveling to Germany, and to other places in Europe.

: Was it readily apparent that you were really serious about it, or that your really liked it?

Augustin: I did always enjoy it, I didn't always enjoy practicing!

It was when I started to take lessons with other people that I became really inspired. Some of (my teachers) were musicians who were in Tuscany on holiday, like Christoph Poppen, who at the time had a string quartet that went to Tuscany to rehearse.

Also, when I was eight, my father took me to Vienna, where Uto Ughi was giving masterclasses. It was the first time that I saw someone who was really, really great at the violin up close, and it was a huge inspiration. I went back the following three years and took lessons with him. I was so impressed because he had such a beautiful, singing tone; his sense of lyricism was beautiful. I also was impressed by the fact all these people would play in a masterclass, and he would just pick up his violin and start playing out all of these concerti. He could play any piece, and he really liked to play in his own masterclass, he liked to demonstrate. It was fascinating to watch him, and it made a big impression on me back then, to see everything he was doing up close.

Laurie: I don't want to dwell on your accident, but I know that it happened while you were growing up, and I wonder if the violin helped you recover.

Augustin: I think it did. At that time, the violin had become a huge part of my life. I was playing more and more concerts, and spending a lot of time with it. When the accident interrupted everything, it was a huge crisis. I didn't know if I would be able to play again. But then as I recovered, eventually I started again. I tried playing, and I realized that it was possible.

It's very helpful, I think, if people can go back to their job, or to their work. It gave me a lot of hope when I realized that I could play again. Of course, it was a long road. I started playing again, but I had to get better physically and psychologically. Also, suddenly I was an adult; I was no longer a prodigy child. So there was less of an interest in my playing –  I was being compared to adult violinists, as opposed to just being compared to prodigies my age.

And I had lost a few years in my musical development, my technical and violinistic development.

: I would think that it would not be just losing a few years on the violin, but then also having to completely recover physically.

Augustin: Well, to some extent, when I started playing again, I was technically at the level I had been before. But of course it takes time to get the physical strength back again.

Then when I was much better, I had the opportunity to play some concerts again. Through one of those concerts, which was  in the United States, I ended up getting management in New York. They convinced me to get out in the world a little more. So I went to summer festivals and I started to realize everything that was out there there. Eventually I decided to go to Juilliard.

: How old were you when you went to Juilliard?

: I went to Juilliard when I was 20 years old; I went into a graduate program. I did have a diploma that I had received at an Italian conservatory. So for a few years I was doing all the requirements for that as I was recovering. Then I also spent one year in Berlin before I decided to go to New York.

In hindsight, it was a great decision (to go to New York) because the city provided a fresh start. And the school was a really inspiring environment – the people that I met, the students and faculty, it was really stimulating. I also had a very, very good teacher – Joel Smirnoff – who helped me develop my technique more. Because of the odd way I had been taught -- by so many different people but not so regularly – there were a few issues I had that he helped me to fix.

Laurie: Tell me about the Indianapolis competition – how did that change your life, and what are your thoughts on competitions, after it's all said and done?

Augustin: Well, I never had fun doing competitions. I'm happy that it's behind me. But they have their purpose, and in some ways they are a great thing because they provide these opportunities. Suddenly my career took off.

When it comes to that particular competition, the community in Indianapolis gets very involved and very excited about it. It feels like a big violin festival. They get to hear all this violin repertoire, all these violinists and great players. It might not be fun to compete in it, but one does have a very supportive and enthusiastic audience.

Laurie: Tell me about the Gingold Strad, has that changed your playing at all? Have you had any insights as a result of playing that instrument?

: It's a very unique violin, it took me a while to get to know it, to figure out how the sound production on it worked. It's very different from the instrument I had before.

Laurie: What did you have before?

: I played on a Guarneri filius Andreae – it was a beautiful instrument, but it had some issues with the size of the sound. It's not del Gesù, it was made by del Gesù's father. It had a great sound, the sound was fantastic, but it was a smaller tone. I really enjoyed my time on it, but sometimes there were those days when it was really tricky to produce the sound. Luckily it had a good day for that competition!

The (Gingold) Strad can also be moody sometimes, with temperatures and humidity changes, but most of all, the sound production works very differently. For some reason, one can't put too much pressure onto the string, it has to happen with bow speed. Over the course of about a year I slowly got to know how it reacted. You can't just do anything to it, it has to be played a certain way. Not all Strads are like that. But if you approach it in a specific way, then there is a lot of sound that can come out, and the sound is just really, really beautiful. It's been a great three years, playing it, especially from the time when I really started to know how to handle the violin, and how it works. It's fantastic.

So this competition has done a lot. It was definitely very stressful while it went on. Although, they do their best. There's something nice about the Indianapolis Competition -- they really try to make the process as easy as it can be, for something that's so competitive.

Laurie: How do they do that?

Augustin: It's the little things. When you are under that much pressure, the little details can make a big  difference. For example, at Indianapolis, you can go off stage in between pieces and take a drink of water. Some competitions won't allow that. Also, the host families for the competitors are very nice, and the whole competition is run extremely well and efficiently. These are things that sometimes can create additional stress, in addition to the stress of being in a competition. And that's the kind of stress that then can be too much – you finally do go insane! (He laughs) It makes sense; this way it's easier for everyone to play their best, which is what you want.

In some ways I felt that the first round was the hardest; you feel like nobody knows you, and starting the repertoire is so hard. In a way, it gets easier afterwards, but the level of tension keeps rising. It's very nerve-wracking, when you suddenly realize you might win, and what would happen if you did? It's really bad to think about that, but you can't stop yourself.

Laurie: You have to be very psychologically strong, don't you?

: Somehow it's possible to get through it, but it can take a lot out of you. I think it's very helpful that the hall is always full, with all these people, so it feels a little bit more like a performance.

Laurie: Do you like a performance better?

: Yes. Definitely. This may not be the same for all musicians, I think it depends on what you've done more. But for me, since I was small, I've played for relatively large groups of people, and it's the sort of setting where I'm reasonably comfortable. When it's small room, just a few people, and it's more like an audition setting – it's a lot more nerve-wracking for me. Most competitions are kind of a hybrid: you have a judge panel that you can see out there, and but then you have all the other people. So you try to pretend that you are playing for all the other people, that you are trying to give them a good performance, and if the judges like it, great. That's how you try to approach it. But of course, the thought keeps creeping in: What do the judges think? What is going to happen? I have to say, when it was all over, I was incredibly relieved. Part of the relief came from the fact that I didn't have to go through it again.

Laurie: I understand that you enjoy composing, is this true?

: I used to compose a lot, and there was a time when I even wanted to be a composer. But then playing the violin took the front seat. I realized that, to some extent, one needs to focus on one thing at a time. One has to play at such a high level (when performing). There was a time, 100 or 200 years ago, when people would compose and perform. But I think the demands that were put on the performer – the technical demands – were not as extreme. People didn't compare you to all those edited recordings like they do now. At the same time, to compose well, you have to put a lot of time and effort. Eventually I might start writing more again. I do write cadenzas.

A cadenza is very interesting and can be very difficult. You have to write somewhat in the composers style, yet I feel that sometimes when it's completely in the composer's style, the cadenza can fall flat. You can tell it's not the composer's; it doesn't have that genius stuff in it...

Laurie: Nor does it have your own stuff, if you are trying to be completely in the style of the composer.

Augustin: Cadenzas for Mozart concertos are really hard because of that. I feel that the route to take is to write something where the gestures and the motives fit the composer's style, yet it doesn't pretend to be the composer. Also, to write something where you can hear that there's a personality in it, that it doesn't limit itself to what was acceptable in those days.

It's just difficult thing to find this balance, especially in a Mozart concerto, where the whole movement is so perfect in its proportions. If you add this cadenza, it could put the whole thing off balance. It can't be too long, it can't be too's a difficult subject. I've tried many times – many of these cadenzas that I do play for these concertos are Version 7...(he laughs).

I wrote the cadenza for the first Paganini Concerto, and somehow I just had fun writing it. It's not that I don't respect Paganini as a composer, but somehow there was something a little less intimidating about writing that cadenza; it just happened. Maybe it's that I grew up in Italy and the Italian idiom comes naturally.

Laurie: What are some of the more important technical exercises you need to do on a regular basis to build and maintain a high level of technique?

Augustin: I don't know if I have anything very unusual...Part of it is – well, it's practicing always. I have to find a mixture between the quantity and quality of practicing. I'm very interested in very efficient practicing. I don't want to put more stress on my body and on my shoulders than necessary. When it's about the interpretation and musical decisions, a lot of work can be done away from the instrument. Oftentimes when I do that work, suddenly I realize I actually don't agree with what I'm doing when I'm playing.

Laurie: Do you listen to recordings of yourself playing, or do you look at the music and sort of run it in your head?

Augustin: One can imagine the music, one can sing the music. Even though I can't sing at all, when I start singing, the phrasing happens much more naturally. Suddenly everything happens the way it should, and then when I'm playing it, all these things that get in the way – because of the technique, or because of whether I start up-bow or down-bow -- you somehow overcome that. It can be helpful to  to realize, 'Oh, that this is actually how I would want it to sound.'

Analysis, in all cases, is really useful. We're not necessarily trained to do that in a conservatory. They teach us some harmonic analysis, but there's no class where they say, this is what you really should do with a violin concerto score, this is how you should approach it, these are the steps. Whereas conductors will often learn that, how to study a score, how to approach a score like that.

If you study the score in itself, you may suddenly realize something that you never would have realized if you just had been playing it. For example, maybe you have a sonata, and as you study it, you realize there is a pianissimo, and that is the only pianissimo that the composer employs in the entire piece. Maybe when you were playing it, you weren't doing that place that much softer than the others, and you certainly weren't thinking about the importance, or why this composer chose this dynamic in this place. When you play it on your violin, you are distracted by the technical challenges. So when you study the score, you notice things that you wouldn't, just playing your part. At the same time, of course, it is really important to also learn a piece in a physical way, to feel it physically. Both things have to happen and come together.

But there's no magic formula. It's just a lot of work. Work efficiently, and work on all the different aspects of it: not just the technical problem-solving but also on the analysis and emotional component of the piece.

Laurie: How do you keep yourself enthusiastic about it after all this work? Once all that's done, how do you go into a performance and really put your heart in it?

Augustin: With some pieces it can be tricky. But there are pieces you can play your whole life, and think about your whole life, and it doesn't get boring. Violinists have quite a bit of music like that. After all this work, at a certain point you have to stop obsessing and worrying. You have to just perform and enjoy the music, to try to get the character and interact with the audience. It can be a danger – sometimes I'm onstage and I'm still worrying about something, or I'm thinking about a fingering – that's completely the wrong place to do that!

Laurie: What do you think is the best piece, for still being interesting after you've played it a hundred times. Just in your opinion.

: I wouldn't say I have a single piece like that. I feel that way, for example, about the Beethoven Concerto. I can't even remember how long I've played it, or how many times. But I still do have fun, and I've never been bored onstage with that piece. Any time I walk off stage after playing the Beethoven Concerto, or the next day, I find myself thinking about everything that I need to do completely differently next time. It's an indication it will never get boring –  there is always room to improve.

From Royce Faina
Posted on December 10, 2009 at 5:02 PM

I really enjoyed this interview.  I especially enjoyed reading about comparing his personal violin with the ex-Gingold.  The tips that I glean not only add to the consistency of my playing, but also what to do when playing potential step up violins in the future.  More and more I am learning when something is me or the violin.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on December 10, 2009 at 7:43 PM

Nice, Laurie.  I heard him play the Brahms last year, and enjoyed it very much.  The encore was Pag #24, and instead of alternating arco and left hand pizz in the 9th variation, he did left and right hand pizz, which was really cool. 

From Rosalind Porter
Posted on December 11, 2009 at 12:45 AM

Another excellent interview!   I feel sorry for him having to give back the violin at the end of the 3 year loan period.  It must be so difficult when you've really got to know a great instrument like that...

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