A tragic fire nearly ended Augustin Hadelich’s career. But the 30-year-old violinist rallied to become one of today’s most sought-after concert soloists
By Corinne Ramey
In 2006, Augustin Hadelich won the gold medal at the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis, regarded as one of the major competitions of the violin world. But while winning a competition can be a big boost to a soloist’s career, it doesn’t necessarily mean immediate concerts, since orchestras plan seasons in advance.
So shortly afterward, Hadelich found himself in Texas, playing the Tchaikovsky concerto for two back-to-back educational concerts with the Fort Worth Symphony . . . at a high-school.
Hadelich played about the first six minutes of the concerto, until the end of its exposition. Then, suddenly and spontaneously, the whole auditorium of high-school students stood up and started applauding, although the orchestra continued to play.
“It felt really great,” says Hadelich, who remembers that moment each time he plays the Tchaikovsky, “like you’re riding a big wave.”
Says conductor Miguel Harth-Bedoya: “The impact was so great because it was completely spontaneous. This was just about music.”
Now, eight years later, Hadelich, 30, has gone from newly minted competition winner to well-regarded soloist, recitalist, and chamber musician. Recent seasons have included debuts with the New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, and San Francisco Symphony, along with a busy schedule of playing with orchestras around the world—in January, the Los Angeles Philharmonic called Hadelich at the last minute to sub for violinist Christian Tetzlaff.
[The accident] made me realize very suddenly that music was very important to me, and maybeI should take it more seriously.
He’s also recorded several albums, most recently concertos by Sibelius and Thomas Adès for the AVIE label, which was released this spring.
This is, as Hadelich puts it, his second career.
The first, as a child prodigy playing with small orchestras in Europe, came to an abrupt end because of a tragic fire that forced him to access his priorities and restart his career. After a break of several years and renewed dedication to the violin, Hadelich won the Indianapolis Competition, giving him the concerts he’d hoped for. Starting with smaller orchestras and moving to larger ones, Hadelich, a planner who thinks seasons in advance, has gradually and systematically built up a career, while still making it all about the music.
Over lunch at a restaurant near New York City’s Lincoln Center, Hadelich, wearing a striped sweater and jeans, is chatty and gregarious. He had performed a violin and piano recital at the Frick Museum the previous weekend, and was enjoying a few days off in New York, which he now calls home.
In June, Hadelich recorded a violin concerto by British composer Adès. It is, he says, the newly released recording about which he’s the most excited. “Right after it was done, I was really on a high,” Hadelich says, between bites of a lobster roll, which he’s eating with a knife and fork. “It took me a few weeks to get the music of the Adès out of my head.
“I’m like an Adès apostle,” he says, laughing. “The more I hear of his music, the more I love it.”
Before recording the work, Hadelich played for the composer in New York. There were two surprises: first, Adès conducting along, from memory (“which I thought was crazy,” says Hadelich), and second, the way the composer regarded his many, complex instructions written in the score.
“There are some that are really, really crucial,” says Hadelich, of the musical markings. “There are others that he couldn’t even remember putting in that are kind of more optional.”
It reinforced the idea that a crescendo is just a simplistic way of marking a more complex musical gesture. “It made me think, suddenly, of some other composers who really overmarked the score,” says Hadelich, using Beethoven as an example. “Maybe he felt the same way, that some of the things he wouldn’t really have wanted to do, and other things are crucial.”
Hadelich’s wasn’t a typical upbringing. He was raised in Tuscany, on a farm with his German parents and siblings. In his family’s home, music was in the air. “Before I was five I would hear this music, and sometimes people would go to the piano and sing Schubert songs,” he says. “Not with the ambition of a great performance, but just because when you play something yourself you experience it in such a different way.”
When he was five, his parents gave him a violin (his older brothers played the cello and piano, so there was hope of a piano trio). Hadelich didn’t have regular lessons—his father, an amateur cellist, just plunked music down in front of his young son, without regard for difficulty level.
“Already well within the first year of starting, my father had put music in front of me, like Mozart Concerto No. 3 or the Mendelssohn concerto,” Hadelich recalls.
By the time Hadelich was seven, he began to study with other teachers. His father would find out which teachers were vacationing nearby, and bring young Augustin for lessons. The first, Hadelich says, was Christoph Poppen, the acclaimed German violinist and pedagogue. “It was really fun,” he says.
The infrequent lessons resulted in a kind of pre-YouTube isolation that most musicians wouldn’t have today, but Hadelich says there were advantages. “There are things about playing violin that you can only learn yourself,” he says. “Like developing your own sound.”
Eventually the family started driving to Germany for lessons, spending a week there every month or so. When Hadelich was ten, he began to perform with orchestras. “It was still sort of the late days of this whole prodigy craze,” he says. “If you were a young boy, everyone was excited about hiring you to do concerts. Some of them didn’t even care to hear me first. But it was good, in the sense that I got a lot of experience and have a lot of memories.”
He commuted between Italy and Germany, playing various concertos with amateur and small professional orchestras. They weren’t well-known ensembles—the biggest was the Dresden Philharmonic, in a concert conducted by violinist Yehudi Menuhin.
“He was not a great conductor, but he was a great musical mind,” Hadelich adds.
In 1999, Hadelich was severely burned in a fire on his family’s farm, causing extensive damage to his upper body and right hand. His concerts were all canceled, he had many reconstructive surgeries, and Hadelich’s life suddenly changed.
He didn’t touch the violin for about six months, and didn’t play another concert for a year and a half. “It took a while until I found the energy again to have this sort of ambition, and for a long time, you know, the main thought was just to get better,” he says. “Then I went back to the violin and I realized it didn’t really feel different, so I just had to recover myself physically and it would be OK.”
“It was quite a big relief.”
Today, he says, he’s moved on, and wants his personal narrative to be more than his accident. “There was one point when we took it out of the biography, actually, because we thought—I’d told the story many times, and it will inevitably take up a large part of any article.”
Still, he is asked, with frequency, how the accident changed his playing.
“I’d like to think that becoming an adult and more mature and spending more and more time thinking about music that my playing would have changed anyway,” he says.
But it did teach him not to take anything for granted: “[The accident] made me realize very suddenly that music was very important to me, and maybe I should take it more seriously,” says Hadelich, who suspects he might have become a composer if he hadn’t been able to play the violin.
“But as my life has developed I find myself thinking about it less and less,” he adds. “There are really long periods of time that pass when I’m not really thinking about it. I think as time has passed it’s become a smaller part of who I am.”
In 2004, Hadelich went to Juilliard, where he earned an artist diploma. He worked extremely hard, and for the first time in his life, had regular lessons in a structured environment. New York City was a sudden jolt out of his childhood world.
He has a really hypnotic sound. I’d recognize it in any recording. It’s so original, and never indulgent.
—Joyce Yang, pianist and recital partner
“Suddenly, when you’re an adult and compared to anyone who has ever played the violin, any age, the competition is so tough,” he says. “So, it was really when I went to New York that I found the motivation and the discipline to put in a lot of hours to practice. I enjoy what I do very, very much and I don’t take anything for granted because I had times as an adult, when I was 20, 21, when I really wanted to play concerts and I had very little.”
Thanks largely to his win at the prestigious Indianapolis Competition, sometimes called the Olympics of the Violin, these days Hadelich has plenty of concerts, and spends three-quarters of the year on the road. It’s a lifestyle that used to be difficult, but he now has it down to a science, from details like how to keep multiple concertos under his fingers to eating and sleeping habits.
Every concert day, he eats a huge lunch of pasta. “I’m very grateful for chains like the Old Spaghetti Factory and California Pizza Kitchen, because they make no-nonsense pasta dishes in big portions,” he says. “When things are too fancy and the portions are normal portions then it’s less ideally suited for carbo-loading.”
The upcoming months include recitals in Sao Paolo, Winnipeg, and Antwerp; as well as appearances with the Detroit Symphony, New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood, and the performance of a piece by David Lang, commissioned by Carnegie Hall. While Hadelich frequently plays new-ish music, this is the first time he’s ever played a world premiere.
He’ll also play a concert of tangos, with pianist Joyce Yang and guitarist Pablo Sáinz Villegas, in a multimedia concert that involves a lighting show, at the Kennedy Center. Pianist Yang, a frequent collaborator, says Hadelich is “the opposite of a divo”; he treats her as an equal, not an accompanist. “We have a lot of fun exploring different options and take all the time in the world to really get ready for whatever will come out onstage,” she says.
The music always comes first, she adds.
Other collaborators describe Hadelich’s playing as always having something to say. “He has a really hypnotic sound,” says Yang. “I’d recognize it in any recording. It’s so original, and never indulgent.”
“I’ve never ever heard him play a sound that didn’t have an idea or personality,” says Harth-Bedoya, the conductor.
“It’s pretty immaculate,” says pianist Charles Owen, who played with Hadelich at the Frick. “But that’s not the main thing. If I’m forced to say one word, I’d say communicative.”
Away from the violin, these same collaborators describe Hadelich as outgoing, organized, and meticulous (“He could have been a travel agent,” says Yang), and fun-loving.
Says Owen, “He’s got a good balance between head and heart.”
Hadelich on Practicing:
“As you get older, you get more efficient in your practicing and learn what helps and doesn’t help. I think what I used to do, and what a lot of people do, is when things don’t go well, to just repeat them. But I’ve learned that repetition is really bad unless you’re repeating the corrected version. You basically have to avoid repeating unless you know what the problem is. I’m amazed at how long it took me to figure it out. You don’t actually need that much repetition—you just need to know why something isn’t working. Once you figure that out, you just need to repeat it a few times, and it’s entered into your head.” —Augustin Hadelich
What Augustin Hadelich Plays:
Hadelich currently plays the c.1723“Ex-Kiesewetter” Strad, on loan from Clement and Karen Arrison through the Stradivari Society. “It’s a very versatile instrument and very good for concertos,” he says. “The sound is not ear-shatteringly loud, but it projects very well, and all the registers are very strong.” (For the four years after winning the Indianapolis Competition, Hadelich played the 1683 “Ex-Gingold” Strad.) He uses a Jarger E and Vision Titanium Solo strings on the A, D, and G. Hadelich says of his strings, “The sound just jumps out, and they project quite well. “They don’t add anything nice to the sound, but the violin already has a lot of beauty in the sound, so I was looking for strings that would just get that sound out there.” His bow is by French bowmaker Pierre “Paul” Simon.