By the end of the 2015-16 season, violinist Augustin Hadelich will have reached another important milestone in his rapidly ascending international career. After making his debut in September with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, he will perform his first-ever concerts Nov. 11-14 with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. At that point, he will have appeared with every major symphony and chamber orchestra in the United States, and with some, multiple times.
“Everyone wants to play with these orchestras — everyone in the whole world,” Hadelich said. “It’s really hard to get your first break. For some years, I was playing a lot with more regional orchestras, and you wait for this chance to prove yourself.”
While he can certainly deliver the fingers-flying razzle-dazzle expected of star violinists, Hadelich has also gained respect for his artistic curiosity and down-to-earth style. “He’s not self-infatuated and is a little self-effacing, which is refreshing in today’s world,” said Joel Smirnoff, the violinist’s teacher at the prestigious Juilliard School, in the New York Times. “His natural expression is one of intimacy, and in that sense I think he’s a bit more like the golden-age guys.”
The son of German parents, Hadelich grew up in Italy and began taking lessons on the violin at age 5. He was quickly identified as a prodigy, but his violin career was nearly derailed before it began; a fire ravaged his family home when he was 15, burning his face, abdomen and bow arm. Fortunately, his hands and fingers – so important to the playing of the violin – were spared, and after months of rehabilitation and skin grafts, he was able to pick up the violin again and restart his training. In 2004, he began studies at Juilliard and earned an artist-diploma from the school.
He grabbed the classical world’s attention in 2006, when he won the gold medal at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, and received a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009. The following year at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival in Colorado, he stepped in at the last minute for an ailing Nikolaj Znaider in what became his debut with the New York Philharmonic — another career milestone. “It was a really exciting story,” Hadelich said. “I was actually on my way to the airport to fly to Europe, but it was going to be a vacation. I was going back to Italy to see my parents. I got this phone call about Vail, so I turned around and went back. I asked my manager, ‘Where is Vail?’ I didn’t know where Vail was, because I hadn’t been in the country quite as long.”
Since moving to the United States to study at Juilliard with Smirnoff, a former member of the famed Juilliard String Quartet, Hadelich has made New York City his home. He was sworn in as an American citizen in September 2014. During the ceremony at the Manhattan Federal Court, he performed a violin version of “America the Beautiful.” U.S. Circuit Court Judge Robert Katzmann, who presided over the event, told the New York Daily News, “Augustin’s rendition was so beautiful, it brought tears to my eyes.”
Now 31, Hadelich has made seven albums, most released by Avie, a London-based independent classical music recording company founded in 2002. His first orchestral recording, with Hunnu Lintu and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, was released in March 2014 and featured the violin concertos of Jean Sibelius and Thomas Adès (“Concentric Paths”). The album was nominated for a Gramophone Award, and National Public Radio included it among its Top 10 Classical CDs of 2014.
“I was very thrilled with that whole project because I’m just completely crazy about the Adès concerto,” Hadelich said. “I think it is the greatest violin work of the last 20, 30, 40 years. It’s an incredibly important piece, and it’s been played a lot. There are about five, six or seven violinists who play it, which is extraordinary for a piece that is only 10 years old.”
Avie recently released another orchestral album featuring him as soloist in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto and Bartók’s Violin Concerto No. 2, and Hadelich is featured on a new Seattle Symphony Orchestra recording on its own label spotlighting Dutilleux’s Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes (“The Tree of Dreams”), 1983-85.
For his next Avie disc, scheduled for a spring or summer release in 2016, he will join pianist Joyce Yang in duo violin works by composers Robert Schumann, César Franck, György Kurtág and André Previn that the two have performed together frequently. “I’m not going to claim there is a genius plan behind this program,” Hadelich said. “It’s to be listened to like a recital, basically. From beginning to end, it makes sense, but on paper, the composers don’t have much to do with each other.”
He and Yang, who attended Juilliard at the same time, had talked for a while about collaborating in concert. But they did not perform together until 2011, when a pianist who was supposed play several recitals with Hadelich dropped out at the last minute. The cancellation happened to fall during one of Yang’s only free weeks that season, and Yang, the silver medalist at the 2005 Van Cliburn International Piano Competition, consented to fill in. Since then, the two have appeared together at least a few times every year. “When you have a duo, you take so much from the other person – energy and, of course, the way they think about music,” Hadelich said. “She’s a very, very energetic performer and she has very intense stage presence as well. It’s been good for me. We kind of meet somewhere in the middle. It’s exciting.”
On Aug. 22, Hadelich made his Ravinia Festival debut with Yang; the recital marked his first return there since he was a student at the Steans Music Institute, one of the most prestigious U.S. training programs. The centerpiece of the eclectic program, which included two works from the duo’s upcoming CD as well as a Janácěk sonata, was David Lang’s “mystery sonatas” for solo violin.
“In general, I like programs where very, very contrasting, very different pieces are put next to each other,” he said. “It really brings both out the differences and the similarities and everyone can see exactly what the style of each piece is. Something like the First Schumann Sonata and the David Lang piece — there is a lot of emotional struggle in those pieces but it is expressed so completely differently. You couldn’t find a much more different way to express that. I’m not a big fan of single-composer programs. The effect is greater when you have contrasts.”
Lang’s 40-minute piece was written as an homage to the “Mystery Sonatas,” the best-known creations of Baroque violinist and composer Heinrich Ignaz Franz Biber. Lang wrote it while serving as composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall, where it was premiered in 2014 as part of a series curated by the composer titled “collected stories.” “I cannot imagine a better performance than the one Mr. Hadelich gave,” wrote music critic Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times. “His playing combined impressive technical command with plush, rich-textured sound. And with magisterial poise and serene control, Mr. Hadelich became a riveting storyteller, which was the point of this piece.”
Lang’s work is structured in such a way that its seven movements can be excerpted and played in smaller groupings, something that the violinist did at Ravinia, presenting about 26 minutes of the full-length original.
For his CSO debut, Hadelich will perform Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219 (Turkish), with guest conductor Edo de Waart. “It’s totally gorgeous,” the violinist said. “I’ve played it as far back as I can remember, basically. It’s Mozart. It never really gets any easier. It gets harder the better you know it. It’s a very versatile concerto. It can be played in all kinds of different ways and is the most extroverted of his concertos, the most virtuosic and flashiest. So when played with a big orchestra in a big hall, it works well that way, whereas with some of the others, you do kind of need a chamber orchestra.”
He wishes that Mozart, who produced 27 piano concertos, had devoted more attention to the violin. “He wrote so many piano concertos,” Hadelich said, “and I feel like if he would have just written five fewer piano concertos and given us another five, it would have been nice.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music critic of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts writer.