By Augustin Hadelich
We’re almost wrapping up my recap of a month in life of a traveling violinist. These four weeks take me to performances in Boston, New York, Eindhoven, London, and Cleveland!
Last week, I flew to Amsterdam and continued by to Eindhoven, arriving on Wednesday afternoon. The jet lag from North America to Europe is much harder to adjust to than in the other direction, because it is easier to lengthen a day and go to sleep later than to take time away and go to sleep when your body is not yet ready to. It has gotten much easier for me to adjust to jet lag as I’ve traveled more and more over the years. The most important thing is to avoid all naps or sleep at the “wrong” times—no matter how much you might want to! I have a much easier time dealing with jet lag when I have rehearsals, since playing the violin makes my body wake up!
The concert in Eindhoven was the first stop on a European tour of the BBC Philharmonic (who are based in Manchester, UK) and John Storgårds, its chief guest conductor. It is not unusual for an orchestral tour to have more than one soloist, based on the schedule and the repertoire wishes of the local presenters. I played the first concert of the tour with them. The repertoire was Prokofiev’s second violin concerto, which I had last played two months ago, and which I am also revisiting again in Cleveland in just a few days.
Both the slow movements of the Prokofiev and Mendelssohn are built on a similar principle: a sweet, lyrical theme in the solo violin that unfolds over an eighth-note pattern in the orchestra.
We had only one rehearsal on Thursday, just a few hours before the concert, and the concert was recorded by the BBC for a later broadcast! It is impossible not to notice and think about the microphone in front of you when you perform during a live broadcast! Do you play for the microphone (so that it sounds best up close), or for the audience in the hall? I think the right answer is to prioritize the concert and the audience in front of you and produce your sound for the hall you are playing in, rather than to play as though it was a recording.
I loved playing with John in past collaborations in Dallas, Montréal, and Vancouver. He is a warm and supportive collaborator who is also a violinist, and he left much of this rehearsal for the concerto, giving us time to really delve into details. Prokofiev definitely had a great sense of humor—in the rambunctuous last movement, every time the violin plays the theme it is wilder and more excessive. Castanettes are added, the rhythm is shifted, until it finally arrives in the G major with all the bells and whistles, almost like a circus, before the movement is driven to the end with an insistent 5/4 rhythm in the timpani. Although it is not a particularly fast ending, it is one of the most heart-pounding in the violin repertoire!
Toward the end of the week, I traveled to London in order to start rehearsing the Mendelssohn concerto with the Philharmonia Orchestra and Clemens Schuldt. Clemens is also a violinist and we first met as kids, when we were both in the same place with our violins. Someone came up to 10-year-old me and said, “Looks like you found yourself a competitor!” and I replied, “No, I found a new friend”. Awww!
Clemens is a brilliant youthful conductor, who is always ready to tackle an often-played work like the Mendelssohn and give it new life, unshackled from the old traditions and conventions.
The Mendelssohn is sometimes thought of as one of the easier violin concertos, because it is often played by young students. In my opinion, while it may be one of the easier violin concertos to learn, it is actually one of the hardest concertos to play a great performance of!
The most common pitfalls are not technical, but rather blunders of taste. Some of the musical questions we face in this concerto are quite hard to answer. For example, what kind of sound should I want? At the time it was written, violinists actually didn’t vibrate much. The work is from the period when the form and the building blocks of the music were still Classical, but the spirit and temperament were starting to break free into Romanticism. Just like Beethoven or Mozart, it is fragile and transparent. Every note has to be just right—and the audience can clearly sense every imperfection. Therefore, its style and affect should certainly be closer to Beethoven than to late Romanticism like Strauss. (I find the term “Romanticism” is so broad, encompassing a period of more than 100 years.)
On the other hand, Mendelssohn also showcases the lyrical side of the violin and there is a vocal, singing quality throughout, which, for me, is a convincing argument for a singing, hence vibrated approach. The first movement (Allegro molto appassionato) has a restless character (conveyed straight away by a heart-beat rhythm in the bass and the violin entering with its delicate, almost pleading theme). Is the “appassionato” perhaps closer to the driven passion in a Sturm-und-Drang work than the passion in the music of Schumann or Wagner? This contrasts with the second theme, where the accompaniment is more at rest. How much slower and calmer should this second theme be? For me, finding answers to these musical questions and playing the work with feeling but without affectation and mannerism is a never-ending search!
Both the slow movements of the Prokofiev and Mendelssohn are built on a similar principle: a sweet, lyrical theme in the solo violin that unfolds over an eighth-note pattern in the orchestra. In both cases, this is the concerto’s most personal, intimate, tender moment. Whereas Mendelssohn envelops the violin line with undulating legato figures, Prokofiev contrasts the smooth and sweet violin line with a spikier ostinato pattern of short clarinet notes and string pizzicati which repeats every bar. Despite these different approaches, both composers achieve a similar result: that incredible feeling of hearing the violin sound floating weightlessly in the hall, and taking us with it. It is these moments that make both these works indispensable in the repertoire, and worth playing again and again.
This coming week, I will travel to Cleveland to perform Prokofiev’s second concerto three more times. More about that in the next post!