Augustin Hadelich: The ‘golden age’ violinist makes his Kennedy Center debut

June 4, 2013

The classical world is not one for randomness. It is the enemy of control, the bearer of distraction, the desultory foe that ruins concertos and careers. But randomness was thrust upon Augustin Hadelich at age 15, when a fire consumed his family home and part of him, burning his face, his abdomen, his bow arm.

The German violinist, who was well on his way to a professional career, nearly died and required months of rehabilitation and several skin grafts. He didn’t pick up a violin until six months later, an admission that might shock teenage prodigies who shudder at skipping one day of practice.

He remembers the day he touched it again. He was scared that he wouldn’t remember how to play, or worse, that it wouldn’t feel the same. But when the bow reached the strings again, that’s when he knew.

“I knew I had to go back to it. I knew I had to keep playing,” he said.

In another random, or rather, miraculous act of chance, the fire had spared Hadelich’s left hand, leaving four crucial fingers untouched. It helped him bounce back and reach Juilliard at age 20, turning the page on the accident that almost derailed his success. On Thursday, Hadelich will make his National Symphony Orchestra debut at the Kennedy Center, another in a string of celebrated firsts for a 29-year-old whom critics praise for his “golden age” sound.


Augustin Hadelich (Rosalie O'Connor)

“That experience, people always wonder, ‘How did it change you?’ ” Hadelich said of the fire. “I can’t quite say what it would have been like had it not happened. But it made me realize how important music was to me. It made me reflect.”

‘His great gift’

Hadelich confesses he didn’t think much about the violin after the fire. His priority was survival, learning to move again.

If anything, that taught him that he could live without the instrument, that he could have “found some other way to live a life with music,” he said.

And that’s the maturity he exudes when playing his 1723 Ex-Kiesewetter Stradivarius in concert halls across the globe. The violin isn’t his whole world, but a joyous part of it. Perhaps that’s why the Dvorak Concerto — a piece he’ll play Thursday — fits him so well. It has long been an underappreciated piece in the classical canon, one virtuosos — or let’s just say it, showoffs — tend to avoid. The concerto suits Hadelich beautifully, showcasing the whole orchestra, not just the violinist. The simplicity of the score lends itself to his style, a voice that is distinct and nostalgic, never a dizzying exhibition of skill devoid of substance.

“It is part of his great gift,” said Joseph Kalichstein, the Kennedy Center’s artistic adviser for chamber music, who coached Hadelich when he studied at Juilliard. “I wouldn’t presume to know why, but he makes an individual statement. He doesn’t sound different for the sake of being different. That . . . is a throwback to a better age.”

Throwback is a word Hadelich hears a lot. Joel Smirnoff, one of his instructors at Juilliard, told the New York Times that Hadelich sounds like one of the “golden age guys.”

“It’s a great compliment, but I’m not quite sure when the golden age is. It’s different for everyone,” Hadelich said, punctuating the thought with a laugh. “From what I hear, people complain that it is harder to distinguish a lot of the violinists of my generation. But there are a lot of technically good violinists. Fifty years from now, people will be nostalgic for today’s age.”

Generous, intense, affable

Hadelich likes small venues and tiny towns. He wishes more violinists traveled to remote places, such as the Tuscan town of Riparbella, Italy, where he grew up. His father, an amateur cellist, was his first teacher. His two older brothers, playing piano and cello, inspired him to pick up the violin at age 5.

“When you start violin, it sounds very bad, but I quickly fell in love with the sound of the instrument, how it sounded so very much like a voice,” Hadelich said.

He didn’t long to leave the countryside in the way the ambitious often do. Instead, he practiced alone, developing a self-sufficiency that seems to amplify his individualized sound. His talent blossomed soon after his early lessons, so he and his family would travel to Germany to visit violin teachers. Sometimes, he would go two months without a lesson.

Self-reliance would become Hadelich’s most valuable trait, helping him cope with the fire, his long recovery and his first years at Juilliard.

“From age 14 to 19, I didn’t take lessons and worked mostly by myself,” Hadelich said. “When I entered Juilliard, it was the first time I had weekly lessons. When you graduate music school, it can be a shock because you don’t have anybody, so it was useful that I worked by myself early on.”

That practice method arguably separated him from young players reared on the Tiger Mom approach, forced to play seven hours a day as a drill sergeant analyzes their hands.

At Juilliard, colleagues noted his generous spirit.

He was a “very intense and yet very affable young man,” said Kalichstein, who trained him in chamber music. “He didn’t let the intensity and seriousness close him off.”

Hadelich went on to win the prestigious International Violin Competition of Indianapolis in 2006 and was awarded the temporary loan of the 1683 ex-Gingold Stradivarius. He would go on to make his Kennedy Center recital debut at the Terrace Theater in 2009, and later that year, his orchestral debut with the Cleveland Symphony. He played with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl in 2010. Last fall, he played Edouard Lalo’s “Symphonie Espagnole” with the New York Philharmonic, a concert that he calls a “dream come true.”

True to his grounded nature, Hadelich doesn’t say the same of his competition win. For him, competition is uncomfortable, and antithetical to what music and life should be.

“It’s hard to compete against other people. You’re supposed to make music with other people,” he said. “I was lucky to win, but I’m very happy I’ll never have to do it again.”

National Symphony Orchestra

with Augustin Hadelich, violinist; Jakub Hrusa, conductor; and Nadya Serdyuk, mezzo-soprano. Thursday at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Kennedy Center Concert Hall, 2700 F St. NW. $10-$85. 202-467-4600.

Katherine Boyle reports on arts, museums and culture for the Style section.
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