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Violinist is no standard-issue virtuoso

Augustin Hadelich, violin & Joyce Yang, piano, February 24, 2013

The Vancouver Sun

by David Gordon Duke

Calling violinist Augustin Hadelich something of an enigma isn’t meant as condescension in any way. I can think of no young fiddle player at the moment whose work is more intriguing. Readers inclined to see what I mean can check him out Sunday afternoon at the Chan Centre, together with pianist Joyce Yang, in a recital program that is rich but more than a little quirky.

Neither Hadelich’s career trajectory nor his performing and recording projects suggest the expected paths to success in today’s classical music world. Sure, he’s a competition winner, a regular performer on the North American and European circuits and a recipient of the ultra-prestigious Buitoni Busoni award – a prize that recognizes exceptional talent at the start of a performer’s career.

But other aspects of the Hadelich phenomenon are more unexpected. At a time when younger and younger performers are regularly heralded as the next great or even super-great virtuosi, Hadelich is pushing 30, yet still making his debuts with the world’s great orchestras. He remains very much a young and a developing artist, but he no longer counts as a prodigy.

Then there is the question of his musical lineage. As his surname suggests, his parents are German, yet he grew up in a Tuscan vineyard; he studied at the Istituto Mascagni in Livorno, then finished his training at the world’s most renowned (notorious?) talent factory, New York’s Juilliard School.

I used to be able to spot Juilliard products pretty quickly from obvious clues: suave sound, glossy programming, and, more often than not, aggressive commercial savvy. But Hadelich refuses to fit that mould. He is anything but a generic fiddle player on the rise. In 2009, the Washington Post’s Anne Midgette, no pushover as critics go, posited that he might be “the musical equivalent of tennis’s Williams sisters, who also took an unorthodox route to great success. Certainly he is not a standard-issue virtuoso. He has tremendous technical fluency but he reaches far beyond that, putting it in the service of articulate, even poetic communication.”

For me it’s also about what he chooses to play as much as how he plays. His repertoire choices are individualistic to the point of near-recklessness. He has a list of more than four dozen concertos and works with orchestra that he’s able to present, and it’s a list that grows annually. And it is by no means restricted to popular favourites: Ades, Berg, Ligeti and Schnitke concertos are right up there along with Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky. His recording projects focus on high concepts like the fin de siècle connections between Paris and Russia, or the Telemann fantasias for solo violin or the complete violin concertos of Franz Joseph Haydn.


This will be Hadelich’s third Vancouver appearance. I very much regret that I missed his first recital – but I sure heard all about it afterward. After his Vancouver Symphony Orchestra debut in 2011, I wrote: “In the course of any given season, we see an astonishing assortment of talent on display. Yet every so often a performer appears who just seems extra special. This was demonstrated last weekend when the young violinist Augustin Hadelich played with the VSO. His sound is intense but refined. As well as power, there is a real sweetness to his tone, and he’s got lots and lots of technical prowess. Then there’s his flawless intonation. I think I’d recognize his sound pretty quickly – something that’s increasingly at issue in a generation of performers who play in a well-schooled musical Esperanto.”

Listening to Hadelich is all about individualism, character, musicianship, and, above all, the choices he makes as a performer – amply reflected in the list of works he brings to us Sunday afternoon. Like pianists, violinists have an embarrassment of riches to choose from when constructing a recital. Alas, performers often choose to play it safe, programming from the same short list of surefire choices. Safe and, too often, rather dull.

Sunday’s repertoire is a surprise – but where Hadelich is concerned it’s no surprise at all. There’s Schumann, no stranger to concert platforms here or anywhere; but I can’t remember the last time I encountered one of his violin sonatas (here No. 1 in A Minor, written in 1851). There’s Ravel’s blustery send-up of the Gypsy idiom, Tziganne (1924) – a favourite, true, but good fun and a piece which demonstrates technical mettle extremely well. There’s a relatively new work by Andre Previn, with the intriguing title of Tango Song and Dance (1997). There’s a 1983 work by the late Japanese star composer Toru Takemitsu, Far Beyond Chrysanthemums and November Fog. And there’s Leos Janacek’s crazy, wonderful Violin· Sonata (1922).

In short, all the elements for a recital of exceptional interest – and a demonstration of one of the strongest, most exciting musical personalities of the moment.

Thu Feb 21, 2013