Italian-born, Grammy Award–winning violinist Augustin Hadelich started his musical journey at just five years old, when his father—a German amateur cellist and agriculturalist—introduced him to the violin. Catching occasional lessons and master classes from traveling violinists who stopped at the Hadelichs’ farm in Tuscany, he rose quickly to become an accomplished violinist, pianist, and composer, all at a very young age.
In 1999, at the age of 15, Hadelich suffered severe burns due to an accident at his family’s farm. He wasn’t able to play the violin for over a year. During this time, he came to realize how much music meant to him, and as soon as he was able, he resumed his studies in earnest, attended the Juilliard School, and graduated with both artist and graduate diplomas.
After winning the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 2006, just a year after receiving his graduate diploma, Hadelich launched a professional career performing with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, BBC Philharmonic, and many other ensembles around the world.
Here Hadelich shares the background of some of the historic instruments he’s played—including two noteworthy Strads—as well as some of his favorite contemporary instruments, his preferred bow, and tried-and-true gear picks.
—Heather K. Scott
Tell us about your instrument and bow.
I’ve been lucky to play the 1723 “ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari for the past six years. It’s in very good condition, with the usual small cracks, but no history of major damage or restoration. It handles changes in the weather quite well—maybe better than I do myself!
For the past seven years, I’ve been playing on a bow by Paul Simon. It’s quite heavy, but one does not notice this because it is very well balanced. I have been very happy with it and love the sound it produces as well as how it feels in my hand.
Is this your primary instrument?
Yes. I also own several modern instruments by Michel Eggimann (from Rome, Italy) and Mario Miralles (from Los Angeles, California). We are currently living in an exciting renaissance of great violin making! I love the Strad of course and cherish every moment on it, but I feel happy to own some excellent instruments which, I think, one day (once the wood ages) will sound just as good.
How does it compare to your previous primary instrument?
Prior to receiving the ex-Kiesewetter, I played on an earlier Stradivari, the “ex-Gingold” from 1683. It was a four-year loan from the Indianapolis Competition. I loved that violin because of its sweet, dark, and rich sound, but it was much harder to play in many ways, and perhaps also less well suited for concertos with orchestra. The ex-Gingold violin taught me so much, and when I transitioned to the 1723 ex-Kiesewetter Strad, I was able to adjust rather quickly because the sound production was similar in many ways. The 1723 Strad is more balanced and strong in all registers, with a greater palette of colors.
What do you know about the ex-Kiesewetter’s history?
The ex-Kiesewetter was played by Christoph Gottfried Kiesewetter (1777–1827), which is how it got its name. Many famous old violins were treated rather roughly in the 19th and first half of the 20th century, because there was not yet this awareness of how precious they are and because of the much more difficult travel conditions in those times. Luckily, the ex-Kiesewetter was never played by one of the great soloists of the old guard, and this may be one reason why it is in such good shape. Only recently has the ex-Kiesewetter Strad been touring around the world, but of course in a modern, sturdy case and in the safety of a modern airplane—not on ships or on horseback!
It was first brought to the United States in the early 20th century, and was seized in 1910 by customs authorities. The owner, Horace Havemeyer, was accused of smuggling it into the country without paying customs tariffs, but he eventually petitioned successfully for it to be returned to him, after pleading the statute of limitations. For almost 20 years now it has been loaned out by its current owners, Clement and Karen Arrison, to young violinists through the Stradivari Society of Chicago. Recipients of this violin before me include Maxim Vengerov, Ilya Gringolts, and Philippe Quint.
Have you thought about the people who have handled it before you, and do they resonate in your instrument or your performance?
It is inspiring to think about the fact that the violin is almost 300 years older than me and will still be around once I’m gone. Sometimes, I hear recordings that others have made on this violin and while I instantly recognize the sound of the violin, I also notice how we sound like ourselves—as different as we all are from each other. When you really get to know an instrument, you gradually discover your personal sound on that instrument and grow to sound more and more like yourself as the relationship deepens.
What drew you to this particular instrument?
In 2010, I was desperately searching for the right violin, because I knew that I had to return the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivari. Through a great stroke of luck, the ex-Kiesewetter had just become available and the owners decided I was a good fit after hearing me in concert. From the first note I played on it, I knew that it was the kind of violin that I wanted. Of course, switching instruments is tricky. For a while, the sound that comes out is not what you expect or what you are used to—it’s a bit like a singer who is suddenly singing with a different voice. It has been an amazing journey to play on this violin and get to know it.
Describe your instrument’s personality and temperament.
My violin is not so temperamental. In fact, it is quite stable and I’m often surprised that after I arrive from a long 15-hour flight feeling exhausted and take the violin out of the case, it’s doing just great.
If you were to liken your instrument to a personality, does anyone specific come to mind?
Like most violinists, I feel really attached to the instrument I play every day, and it’s only natural to feel like it’s a creature with a mind of its own. I don’t really anthropomorphize it, however—it feels more like a spirit than a person. When I pick it up and play the first note, I can immediately sense if the humidity is too high or too low and how it reacts to new strings or adjustments.
What are the ex-Kiesewetter’s strengths and limitations?
The strength of this violin is how versatile it is—I’ve played everything from solo violin to concertos with large orchestrations, from Baroque to contemporary music on it. It can sound very sweet and beautiful, but it also has many other colors. In much of the violin repertoire, composers want a lyrical, singing, beautiful sound and that’s a crucial test of an instrument’s quality. But there are also pieces (Shostakovich is a good example) in which the music is not always supposed to sound pretty, and portrays the full range of human emotion. A great instrument can also produce colors that are bleak and lifeless, or angry and desperate.
Stradivari’s violins from the so-called “Golden Period” (roughly 1700–25) have a very focused sound that is bright in overtones. Because of this, they generally project very well in a big hall and can be heard in the last row better than many other violins. If you compare the Strad to the same other violin in a small room however, the Strad often sounds softer! It’s an interesting acoustical phenomenon. The sound that is hardest to produce on the ex-Kiesewetter is a darker, “fatter” violin sound. It is possible, although it took me quite some time to learn how to sound like that on this violin.
If given the ability, what would your instrument say to you if the two of you sat down for tea?
“Young man, these new strings are tight but very slimming—they look great, thanks!”