Interview with Augustin Hadelich: Beethoven, Strads and the Virtues of Practicing Slowly

October 18, 2012, 12:18 PM · While violinist Augustin Hadelich was in Los Angeles to play with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, I had the pleasure of sitting down to chat with him over lunch between his rehearsal and concert (pasta before a performance, he said. And he knew a lot about pasta!)

Tonight Augustin will perform Lalo's "Symphony Espagnole" with the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fischer Hall (Oct. 18, 19, 20, 23), after which he goes to Houston to play Bartok's Concerto No. 2 with the Houston Symphony. The rest of his schedule is on his website.

Winner of the 2006 International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, Hadelich has spent the last six years hopping the globe. Born to German parents, Hadelich grew up on a farm in Italy. His recordings include Flying Solo, with works for solo violin by Bartok, Ysaye, Paganini and Bernd Zimmermann; and Echoes of Paris, with works by Poulenc, Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Debussy, performed with pianist Robert Kulek. Over the summer, Augustin collaborated with guitarist Pablo Sainz Villegas on works by de Falla, Paganini, Piazolla and Sarasate, for a recording that will come out next March. Next summer he is scheduled to record the Thomas Adès and Sibelius Concertos with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Hannu Lintu.

Augustin Hadelich

In Los Angeles, Augustin said he enjoyed working with conductor Jeffrey Kahane, who is an accomplished pianist (in fact, he was playing the Ravel Piano Concerto, in the same concert!)

"We had 30-minute meeting, playing through some places. He'd sit down at the piano and he had a great time playing the piano reduction!"

"I think every time I've played this piece, it's been with symphony orchestra, not chamber orchestra," Augustin said of the Beethoven Violin Concerto. Of course, it's a piece that can be played with either set-up, but a lot of the balance problems that arise with the typical symphony performance simply were not issues with a chamber orchestra.

"The whole approach is different," he said. "It's quite easy to be flexible in tempo, because (chamber musicians) are so used to listening. With a big symphony orchestra, if you want to move the tempo, it's so difficult. The conductor can do it, but it isn't easy because sometimes the conductor will do it and they don't even pay attention. Of course, there are moments in the piece -- some of the big tuttis, big climaxes -- where having the full, big orchestra sound is incredibly good. So it can work several ways."

Figuring out the tempo is one of the most challenging things about the Beethoven Concerto.

"I've gone back and forth many times. Sometimes I've played with some stern older German conductors who want it very, very slow, and it can work. It becomes other-worldly and quiet," Augustin said. Then again, "if you just look at the orchestral introduction and think about what tempo it should go, and not think about any of the rest of the piece, you arrive at a tempo that is much faster than how most people play." When the violin enters and plays these themes, they are ornamented and full of passagework. "I think the mistake that a lot of violinists make, and I used to make as well, is that you try to play that ornamentation melodically. I think it bogs down, suddenly you have to play it much slower, and you lose the large structure."

So for a while, he tried playing the piece at the tempo of the introduction. "I really went for it -- and it was really fast. It becomes a really different piece," he said. "I was pretty unsatisfied, actually, afterward. The problem was that somehow, it felt restless. It no longer had the depth, and the time and space."

These days, he looks for the compromise that is both fast enough to be flashy and to give the listener a sense of the larger structure, but slow enough to show the piece's ethereal quality and peacefulness.

"I was around eight when I started playing the Beethoven," Augustin said. "As a child, you don't really understand Beethoven at all. The violin part is very exposed, so it's very useful, having played it that long. Although, some places never get easier! It's one of those pieces that I can do 100 times in a row and not be tired of. It's such a gorgeous piece."

For about two years, Augustin has been playing the "Kiesewetter" Stradivari of 1723, on loan from the Stradivari Society.

"It's a great instrument, it sounded good right away, but it's a process, to get used to the way it sounds," he said. "The one I had before (the ex-Gingold Strad) was really different."

Most Strads are fairly finicky, and in the last six years, Augustin has become a student of how to finesse a Strad. When it comes to sound production, "you can't press too much, and you have to use enough bow," especially with the earlier Strads.

The "Kiesewetter" is from a later period, and "it's somehow more resilient. It goes through changes in humidity and temperature, and it will sound sometimes a bit better, a bit worse, but the difference is not so great that an audience would notice anything -- you notice as a player. You do have the option, when you're really in trouble, like you're just playing in the worst hall possible or the orchestra is way too loud, you can push it, you can press on it, and it does actually have a reserve that you can push out and make it sound even better. It's quite good as a soloist's instrument."

"And I think it has a very beautiful sound, and it has more colors than the other one," he said. "It's not so sweet, so when you play music that is not always just beautiful, you play the Shostakovich, or composers who write music about the ugly sides of life, then you need to be able to get colors that are really different, and that was really difficult on the other one. It was just so sweet all the time!

Like Mr. Gingold!

To get a fast response, he was changing the strings every 10 days or so with the ex-Gingold. He found that Vision Titanium strings gave the fastest response, if not the prettiest sound. "I still use those strings on this one, but I can leave them on for a month now, and it still sounds fine. It speaks."

"That Gingold Strad, I had to sort of tame it. It's gorgeous, the sound that comes out in the recordings, when you don't have any balance problems and you can put the mike really close, it has such a beautiful sound. I really loved it. I had to have it adjusted all the time." That is, he eventually started taking it to the luthier every week.

"She was just down the street in New York, and she was really nice," he said. "We would just check. Sometimes things happen, like cracks or seams opening. Depending on what condition the violin is in or what repairs were done how long ago, it can happen quite frequently. Once dirt gets into the seams, they open up very quickly again. Also, with every little weather change, you have to do the soundpost again."

"With the one I have now, I go three times a year. I don't really get soundpost adjustments because it sounds good, even when it's out of adjustment! It's very stable. It's made my life a lot easier."

Nonetheless, the ex-Gingold was special. "Wherever I went, in every orchestra, every place, there was a student of Joseph Gingold who came up and wanted to see the violin," Hadelich said. "Gingold was so loved by everybody, and the violin really does sound the way he did. It's a really beautiful instrument, and I have to say, I learned a lot about playing on the violin, because when you're struggling and you find the way to really get the most out of it a the moment, and learn to be able to play with this full bow -- something you don't need on every violin. It's interesting, when you look at Oistrakh, he uses a lot of bow on the finale of the Beethoven. He also had an early Strad that also doesn't project much, so he was compensating a bit for it."

Hadelich also became adept at dealing with a "wolf" -- when a specific note on the G string tends to crack when played and sound like an opera-singing frog.

"The violin I have now usually doesn't have a wolf - only if the weather is really bad," he said. "Most violins have a wolf on the B or C or C#, that range, and I can feel it on this violin, the notes are always more precarious when you are up on the G string. But if it's stable enough, then you play them and you usually don't have trouble. But when the wolf is really strong, you can start having a wolf on every string, for those same pitches on the D string or on the A string. It has to be the same pitch, whatever pitch the wolf is on, you can have it on the D or A as well."

Here's the secret to dealing with it:

"The Gingold had a wolf on the B natural on the G string. If you are playing a piece like Tzigane, where you play that note a lot, you have to find a way to get the note to speak. It is possible, actually. You can compensate for it with your bow pressure and bow speed. It's hard to just start playing the wolf-note, but if you arrive to it from another note, and you get the string to really ring on the previous note, whatever that note is, and you build the sound and pressure and bow speed up, then if you switch to the wolf note and you keep it the same, or you can decrease it, and it won't do the wolf thing to you. But, if you increase it, or if when you switch to the wolf note for some reason the sound is stopped and you have to restart it, then it will be wolf-y. You can't really crescendo well on it, then. That's when it gets really precarious, if you increase the pressure or bow speed on the wolf. So the trick is, usually you will arrive to it from another note on the G string -- you get the string to really, really ring, then play the wolf just a tiny bit softer, or just relax a little on it, and then it will be fine. If you have to start on the wolf note…There's a way you can attack it, you attack it then you let go of it. But once it starts doing the wolf thing, it's over!"

Augustin has found that, with all the traveling and playing with various orchestras, he has had to change his practice routine.

"My practicing methods changed a bit over the last year, because I had a bout of tendonitis in one of my fingers," Augustin said. "I never used to warm up or anything like that. I always practiced only at tempo and not slower." The stress of switching pieces frequently -- playing Sibelius one week and Mendelssohn the next week -- caused stress, which led to tension in his hand.

"I really overdid it one week, and suddenly I had tendonitis," he said. "So for a while, I couldn't practice very much, but I still had concerts. So I started practicing very slowly. Suddenly, I discovered that I was actually playing better, even though I was doing so little practicing. I did two things: I practiced very slowly, and I would go through the piece in my head. I'd look at the score, and go through it. So my idea of the piece, how to interpret it and structure it, was much clearer. And, I was practicing slowly -- there's a reason why people always say you should practice slowly, I realize now!" (He smiles)

"Of course, now my finger is all better," he said. But he has become more aware of the warning signs. "I learned how to figure out when there was tension when I was playing. I'm better at not doing it. There would be certain moments in the piece, where I would tense up. If I practiced it a bit more, or practiced it slowly, and then I wouldn't need to be so tense."

"I used to think that if you practice it at a slower tempo, you only get better at playing it at that tempo," he said. "There is some truth to that: when you play it faster, everything is different. If something doesn't work, you can slow it down and figure it out, or get a clearer idea in your head, but it is important to practice at speed as well."

"At the same time, you can get a passage a lot better by practicing it slowly. It doesn't put any strain on your hand," he said. "So that's become a big part and now I do warm up as well, when I start playing in the morning."

"I felt really stupid when this happened last year, because it didn't really come from the way I was playing the violin in general, it wasn't anything major I had to change, it was just the kinds of things that are sort of common knowledge," he said. "When you're very young, you don't absolutely have to warm up before you play. You can just pick the violin up and everything works. The body is really resilient. Then at some point you just have to - warm up!"

"Even stuff that's very difficult, your hand CAN do it in a relaxed way, if you practice it," he said. "The faster the passage, the less your fingers have to press down on the string, and that can take care of a lot of tension, when there's something very fast." For example, in Lalo's Symphony Espagnole, a piece with a lot of fast notes: "A lot of times, your fingers just don't need to go all the way down. The faster the passage is, and the higher up, the less they have to go down. That can take care of a lot of tension as well."

And here's another thing: "It's important to enjoy it -- you are up there for 40 minutes, you should really love the experience," Hadelich said. For example, in the Beethoven: "When the orchestral introduction starts, I try to have a good time and enjoy the fact that I'm playing one of the most beautiful pieces ever written."

Hadelich played Paganini 24 as an encore in Los Angeles, here is a live performance from 2010 in Saarbrücken, Germany:


October 19, 2012 at 02:56 PM · Great interview, as always. I want to hear more from this violinist.

The interview gave me an idea for a classified ad:

"Violin, made in Italy by Stradivarius. Great sound, but needs new strings every ten days and weekly trips to the luthier to keep it running, plus it helps if you have so much leftover technique that you can adjust to its subtle demands. Priced to sell at $4 million."

October 20, 2012 at 02:09 AM · Thanks for this! I was lucky enough to see Mr. Hadelich play the Brahms with the Nashville Symphony and he was spectacular--what technique, and what passion! If you get a chance, be sure to see him live. I am excited to see how far he can and will go with his career. I really enjoyed reading this.

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