Instrumentalist of the Year:
Augustin Hadelich

By Bruce Hodges

His lyrical, singing style has been recognized by numerous awards at home and abroad, including the inaugural Warner Music Prize in 2015. His unambiguously emotional style, abetted by the lyrical, singing quality of his “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivari from 1723, affords audiences exalted performances from Mozart to the moderns.

2018 Muscial America Instrumentalist of the Year:<br>Augustin Hadelich
© 2015 Paul Glickman

In the dazzling opening movement of Thomas Adès’s 2005 Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths, the soloist enters in the instrument’s stratospheric reaches, and the orchestra responds with contentious contrapuntal attacks. The music varies in tone from sweet to shrill, and when the orchestra rises up like a leviathan, one imagines the violinist standing on the prow of a ship, spearing it fearlessly.

The concerto’s demands are considerable, but in his stunning recording on the Avie label, violinist Augustin Hadelich is unfazed. While returning from a recent concert in Seoul, Hadelich made clear his admiration for the composer: “I’m crazy about Adès and his concerto, which I have recorded and program in concert as often as I can. I think it is the most important new addition to the violin repertoire in a long time.”

Young and accomplished
Even at this relatively early stage in his career, Hadelich has performed with many of the world’s great conductors and ensembles. “Perhaps because of my German background, I grew up dreaming of one day playing with the Berlin Philharmonic, so that is definitely on my bucket list! Another one would be playing with the conductor Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra, whom I’ve loved listening to.” Hadelich’s wishes will likely come true: This year alone, he made debuts in Seoul and Munich, as well as with the Royal Concertgebouw of Amsterdam. 

His talents have already been recognized both in the United States and abroad. Lauded with an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009, he received Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award in 2012 and the inaugural Warner Music Prize in 2015. In the U.K., Hadelich received a Borletti-Buitoni Trust Fellowship in 2011, and in December 2017 the University of Exeter gave him an honorary doctorate.

Early concerts in New York revealed his mastery of Mozart, and last season he was highly praised for his expressive playing with the New York Philharmonic in Dvorák’s underrated violin concerto. But Hadelich’s taste in repertoire is admirably wide-ranging and adventurous. In addition to recordings of standard repertoire—concertos by Bartók, Lalo, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, and Tchaikovsky—Hadelich has special affection for Henri Dutilleux, and has recorded two of his works with Ludovic Morlot and the Seattle Symphony, Nocturne for Violin and Orchestra: Sur le même accord, and L’arbre de songes. The latter, a moody opus glittering with pristine colors, earned the violinist a 2016 Grammy Award. 

An unusual choice

Last February, Hadelich posted comments on his website ( about Leonard Bernstein’s Serenade, which the violinist performed with Alan Gilbert and the Concertgebouw. “The fourth movement, ‘Agathon,’ is one of the most beautiful movements of any 20th-century concerto, and among my favorite slow movements.” An unusual choice, it confirms Hadelich at his most inquisitive. In January 2018 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Adès, he will give Ligeti’s Violin Concerto further exposure. As an extra frisson, Hadelich will play Adès’s new cadenza for the work.

Born in 1984 in Italy, Hadelich studied with Joel Smirnoff at the Juilliard School, where he received an Artist Diploma. But the violinist recalls other mentors: “My father (who is an amateur musician), the Italian virtuoso Uto Ughi, Christoph Poppen, Igor Ozim, and Norbert Brainin (from the Amadeus Quartet).” 

Hadelich’s love of chamber music is borne out in his latest recording with pianist Joyce Yang, in standard works by Schumann and Franck as well as less-familiar repertoire by Kurtág and Previn. “I didn’t grow up playing much chamber music, because I come from a rather isolated place in Tuscany. Chamber music was a huge discovery for me after I moved to New York as a student, and I became quite obsessed. Getting to know the amazing chamber music of Brahms, Mendelssohn, Dvorák, and Bartók was a revelation because when I returned to their concertos, I understood the musical language much better and was able to see the music in a new light.”

He continues, “Chamber music and recital performances are fun in a quieter way. I get to explore the softer dynamics and subtle nuances and can feel the more intimate involvement of the audience. I actually find little difference between how I communicate with other musicians in a concerto and in chamber music. In every chamber piece there are moments when you must take the lead; and there is no concerto that does not require the soloist to listen intently and interact closely with the orchestra throughout. The greatest concertos like Brahms, Bartók 2, Berg are so symphonic that the violin should usually follow the orchestra, not the other way around. Only this way does the piece come to life in all its detail.”

Examining the score beyond the solo
Hadelich has also learned from conductors, and already has collaborated with the best: Christoph von Dohnányi, Manfred Honeck, Andris Nelsons, and Vasily Petrenko, among dozens of others. He recalls their invaluable life lessons, such as teaching him how to examine a complete score—not just the solo violin part. “This kind of analysis should be paramount in the conservatory education, and
conductors are trained well in it, but unfortunately, it is barely taught to instrumentalists.”

Part of the violinist’s power and impact comes from his instrument, the “Ex-Kiesewetter” Stradivarius from 1723, on loan from the Stradivari Society of Chicago. “The strength of this violin is how versatile it is in all kinds of music, from solo violin to concertos with large orchestrations, from baroque to contemporary music,” he observes. “Many composers (particularly from the 19th and early
20th centuries) want a lyrical, singing style, with a beautiful sound, which this violin handles beautifully. It can also play well in styles in which the music is not supposed to sound pretty, such as the music of Shostakovich and Schnittke, which require colors that are bleak and lifeless, or angry and desperate.”

Like many great musicians, Hadelich is committed to promoting unfamilar works worthy of wider exposure, such as David Lang’s mystery sonatas, commissioned by Carnegie Hall. Written in 2014 for the violinist, who calls it “very beautiful,” Lang’s four-part opus pays tribute to Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber, who used the same title for his virtuosic violin set in the 1670s. In Lang’s half-hour solo
flight, Hadelich is at his best: unambiguously emotional, with glistening, pure intonation.

He has also discovered Francisco Coll (b. 1985), a student of Adès. At the BBC Proms in August 2016, Hadelich and Adès performed Four Iberian Miniatures (2014), a clever, audaciously orchestrated salute to the region’s castanet-laden melodies. “A terrific work,” the violinist enthuses. 

But Hadelich is aware of the pitfalls inherent in commissions. “You have no idea how the piece will turn out. If it turns out well, then it is very exciting to be the first person to explore it. However, some premieres are also ‘dernières,’ the first performance and the last! 

“When I find a new work that I think is truly exceptional,” says Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year, “it is important for me to play and make it known as much as possible, so it can settle into its place in the violin repertoire—regardless of whether it was written for me or not.” •

Bruce Hodges is a regular contributor to The Strad and serves as North American editor for Seen & Heard International. He has written for Playbill and Strings, among many publications, as well as program notes for London’s Southbank Centre. From 2007 to 2015, he wrote a monthly recordings column for the Juilliard Journal.