Interview with William Hagen: Danse Russe at the Colburn School

February 20, 2020, 11:01 PM · When American violinist William Hagen faced the idea of recording his first album, he knew one thing: He wanted to record music that was artistically fulfilling, but also that his grandma would enjoy.

William Hagen
Violinist William Hagen. Photo by Matt Clayton.

On Saturday he will premiere his new album Danse Russe with pianist Albert Cano Smit in a recital at the Colburn School at 8 p.m. in Zipper Hall. (You can view the livestream here).

Hagen started violin at age four in a Salt Lake City Suzuki program, making his debut with the Utah Symphony at age nine. At age 27, he's blazed an impressive path: he went on to study at the Colburn School with Robert Lipsett, at The Juilliard School with Itzhak Perlman and at the Kronberg Academy in Germany with Christian Tetzlaff. He won third prize in the 2015 Queen Elisabeth International Music Competition and has played with a long list of well-known conductors and orchestras around the world.

Hagen and I spoke about his longtime connection to Los Angeles and the Colburn School, his collaboration with pianist Albert Cano Smit, and the idea of making an album that satisfies your vision as an artist but also serves as good listening material for your grandma.

Laurie: You're coming back to LA, so tell me a little bit about your relationship to LA, for those who don't know.

Will: Maybe unfairly, I feel very much like I'm part-Angelino because when I was 10 years old, I started to fly down to LA for lessons at Colburn.

I love LA. Of all the places I've been in the entire world, the best city to eat in is LA. Watching movies like La La Land and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood made me think, "Man, I miss LA!"

Laurie: You watched Colburn change a lot while you were here.

Will: I was a student of the community school before they had dug the hole to build the new building. The Grand Avenue building was Colburn's only building —there was a big parking lot where the Olive building now stands. I remember watching that hole being dug for such a long time! I go way back with Colburn. I'm inspired by the growth that has happened -- it's been amazing to see it take off.

Colburn has such amazing faculty. Robert Lipsett taught me for 11 years, and he's undeniably the biggest single influence on my career and on my playing. He's also become a great friend of mine. We call each other every now and then, and we'll be on the phone with each other for an hour.

There’s also Clive Greensmith and Martin Beaver; I respect them each so much. They’re absolutely incredible musicians, and great teachers and chamber coaches. I have been absolutely blown away when I’ve gotten to hear them in concert, and I had great chamber coachings with them both.

Paul Coletti was a big influence on me. I didn’t ever get one-on-one lessons with him, but his comments to me after my performances were always so helpful, and he knocked on my practice room door a couple of times to tell me I was practicing sloppily, which I was! So that was much appreciated. I also had a couple of chamber music coachings with him that profoundly affected how I thought about music and about my role as a performer.

So I have immense respect for every member of the faculty at Colburn.

The whole setup of Colburn is something that music schools around the world should examine. Their focus on public performance is really unique, and I think that performance is the most important thing for a musician, especially somebody who wants to play in a string quartet or be a soloist.

Colburn actually gives you ways to practice performing at school. The Studio Class happens every week, predictably. And it's in a hall, not a classroom, so you get some sense of playing in a space. And then Performance Forum, where you're playing in front of the whole student body and faculty -- it's pretty unique to Colburn.

It's funny that we think that being a practice room all day will help you. Of course it does help, of course it's necessary -- but you have to practice performing. For example, I would probably rather listen to the Beatles in 1968 than in, say, their very first show in Hamburg!

So Colburn allowing people to perform is just a huge, huge help.

In fact, when we were recording this album I thought, "Wouldn't it be cool if we could perform an album-release concert at Colburn?" Albert Cano Smit, the pianist, also is a Colburn alum. So I contacted Laura Liepins, and she made it happen.

Laurie: Laura -- she passed away in December after a long battle with cancer. I'm so sorry; I know that you worked closely with her.

Will: She was basically my first manager, because I was one of the people represented by Colburn Artists, a program which she started. It's Colburn's version of Young Concert Artists. Laura was a manager at Opus 3 for quite some time, before she came to Colburn. And you could tell: She was extremely good at her job.

It was very soon after I signed with her that I found out that she was suffering from cancer. Now that I've been doing this a little bit longer, I can see that she was really remarkable, really good at what she did. And also just a really lovely person. She also represented Simone Porter, and Blake Pouliot and the Calidore Quartet -- there are a lot of careers that she started and things that she taught us. She was just a really positive influence on so many lives. It was inspiring to see how hard she worked despite her illness and to see what she was doing despite everything that was going on with her body. It was so inspiring.

Laurie: Tell me a little bit about your collaboration with Albert and your inspiration for this program.

Will: I'll first start with Albert. Albert is younger than me. When he came to Colburn as a freshman, he played on one of those Performance Forums, and I remember thinking, "Wow. Who is that? That guy's amazing!" He was playing classical repertoire. It wasn't something innately flashy that made us all say "Wow!" -- it something deeper and more profound. He just had a touch and had a character on the instrument. I was blown away. I thought, "I really want to play with this guy!"

Turns out he's also the nicest person in the world, the lowest-maintenance, easiest person to work with in the world. We've been playing together for quite some time now, and I have enjoyed every single moment of it. He is such an amazing pianist. He's been doing really well lately, he recently won Young Concert Artists, and he won the Naumberg Competition before that. He's definitely somebody to look for in the future, and I just feel lucky that I get to work with him.

Laurie: Tell me about the program on your new recording, which is also what you'll be playing at Colburn Saturday night.

Will: I wanted to record music that I really loved, a program that makes sense. This is honestly how I thought of it: For my first album, I want to program something that I know that my grandma will listen to, but that I won't get laughed off stage for recording.

I wanted to do something interesting, but I also wanted to record something that everybody can listen to, that the people who've never listened to classical music before can listen to. I stand by every track on the album. This is listenable music, but it's also interesting music, and it's exciting music.

Laurie: I can't wait to hear the Stravinsky Divertimento from the "Fairy's Kiss" ballet. I love that piece.

Will: It's an insanely good piece of music.

That piece is a transcription, as are three other pieces on the album: Suite Italienne; the Danse Russe from "Petrushka"; and the Russian Maiden's Song from "Mavra," all pieces quoting ballets by Stravinsky. For these, Stravinsky did the transcribing with Sam Dushkin. So he was intimately involved -- this is not a third party taking his music and messing with it. He endorsed this. He even said that he thought of these as concert pieces on their own. And I think that there are advantages to playing this music with just two people, versus playing it with an entire orchestra. With two people, there's more flexibility, more nuance that can happen.

Laurie: Is your Grandma going to listen to this?

Will: She already has! I have an endorsement from Verla Hagen!

Laurie: An important endorsement indeed! It sounds like there is quite a lot of ballet music in this then. Is that the origin of the album title?

Will: My manager suggested "Danse Russe," and that was just perfect. It's all dance music. And if there are some overarching themes for the album, a big one is "fairy tales." I'm not going to say that the Prokofiev Sonata is explicitly a fairy tale, but everything Prokofiev touches has this fantasy, fairy-tale element to it. I wrote the program notes, and as I was researching Prokofiev, I loved reading about what created that sound. He's one of the most unique composers ever. People forget that he's one of the great film composers of all time; that his sound is still out there all the time. It not just in music by Prokofiev but it's in things like: What does a spooky-sound, sound like? What does a fairy-tale-fantasy-sound, sound like? You'll hear it that sound in modern movie soundtracks, and that sound comes from growing up in rural Ukraine. There's a lot of folk music in that sound, and there's a lot of "Grandma's fairy tales." We actually have a piece on the album, "Tales of an Old Grandmother." I don't know if we're the first people to record it, I assume not because it's a Milstein transcription, but I couldn't find it anywhere. I found it when I was watching the Christopher Nupen documentary, Nathan Milstein, Master of Invention, and they cut to footage from Milstein's last recital,
playing the "Tales of an Old Grandmother." I thought, "Wow, that's unbelievably beautiful, let's record that!" I didn't realize that it had not been played very much. It's a piano piece, and Milstein arranged a couple of movements from it.

Laurie: Was it hard to find?

Will: Yes and no. It's Schirmer. If you search "Tales of an Old Grandmother by Milstein," then it's hard to find. If you search "Four Russian Pieces transcribed by Milstein," you can find it. One of those pieces is a gorgeous Tchaikovsky aria from the opera "Mazeppa." There's some good stuff in there. But "Tales of an Old Grandmother" ties together the whole fairytale theme of the album.

Laurie: I noticed you are now playing on the 1732 “Arkwright Lady Rebecca Sylvan” Strad, on loan from the Rachel Barton Pine Foundation. Tell me about your violin.

Will: Well, before this violin, I had the 1735 'Sennhauser' Guarneri del Gesù, through Stradivari Society. I feel so ridiculously spoiled, playing on a del Gesù and now a Strad! I am very aware of how fortunate I’ve been. I could talk to you for an hour about how great this Strad is. It's unbelievable. I am so grateful to Rachel and her foundation for allowing me to perform on it.

You grow up listening to del Gesùs and Strads on recordings; in my case I grew up listening to a whole lot of Itzhak Perlman. I may not be playing on Perlman's violin, but you can hear those same kinds of qualities on this violin, qualities that you hear on those other Strad recordings. You get the clarity and the carry on the upper end, and on the lower end you get that kind of grainy sound. It's maybe not quite as deep as a del Gesù, but it's really husky. I can't believe my luck, playing on this violin.

Laurie: Wow, congratulations. When did you start playing on it?

Will: It was about December 2018, so I'm just over a year playing on it.

Laurie: I understand you are based in Salt Lake City, is that right?

Will:Yep! It was not a planned thing, but since it happened, I have to tell you that I love being based out of Salt Lake City, for a few reasons. First of all, just from a professional standpoint, my commute to and from the airport is unbelievably convenient; so much better than living in a bigger city! Salt Lake City is a Delta hub, so I can fly nonstop to almost everywhere in the U.S., and to Amsterdam, London, and Paris. Because they have the best flights here, I almost exclusively fly Delta, which has kind of forced me into loyalty with them, which means I get really good status!

The nature is just incredibly beautiful here. The mountains are right in our backyard, and we’re a short road trip away from some of the most breathtaking national parks in the country.

Plus, this is where I'm from, so I have my family here. Even though my wife Andrea and I don't have children, we have a dog (Zuzu, the cutest and best dog in the world!). I'm on the road a lot, and when Andrea goes to work she can drop the dog off at my parents’ -- in fact, we have a long list of people who love Zuzu and would be happy to watch her for us! It's a very convenient place to be based out of and I'm really happy here.

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