Beethoven's Violin Concerto is a poetic summit of the repertoire. Its titanic length, ethereal slow movement and saucy finale have entranced music lovers for generations. It is widely considered to be the greatest violin concerto ever written.
"I've played the Beethoven concerto since I was 8 years old," says violinist Augustin Hadelich, who performs the work this weekend with the Minnesota Orchestra. "It's one of those masterpieces that I can never get enough of, regardless of how many times I hear it and play it."
Any other violinist admitting that he has played the Beethoven since 8 would come across as cocky. But when Hadelich says it, he sounds as frank and humble as his playing itself.
The Beethoven, he says, "is extremely difficult, because it is such a transparent, perfect work that the listener is instantly aware of any impurity — and many parts of it are exciting, but never flashy or virtuosic." Like most of us, he is in awe of the work. "Every time I play the slow movement of the Beethoven, I marvel at how perfect, how simple, intimate and human it is. Perhaps it gives us — just for a moment — an insight into some deep fundamental truth of our existence, a glimpse of what lies beyond."
Hadelich was born to German parents in the spring of 1984. He grew up in an unlikely place for a virtuoso violinist: a Tuscan vineyard. Spending his childhood away from the blinding lights and cutthroat competition of a big city proved to be a formative experience, especially musically.
"I am grateful that growing up I was surrounded by beautiful and calm countryside and had the time to explore music and develop my own sound without too many distractions," he says. "I studied with some great teachers, but I usually had to travel far to meet them, and did not see them regularly. As a result, I had to become quite independent at an early age during the long stretches of time when I was home working by myself. This was the time before YouTube, when it was difficult to get the chance to watch a great soloist perform up close."
Amazingly, one of the great performers he often saw when he was a child was conductor Jun Markl, who will be the guest conductor on the podium this weekend in Minneapolis.
In 2004, Hadelich went to New York City to study at Juilliard. The transition was a thrilling one. Although he admits that lately he has found himself returning to Italy to "recharge" his batteries, moving to America was the best choice he could have possibly made as a 20-year-old college student. ("I'd seen enough of the olive trees and vineyards," he says wryly.) He blossomed in New York, where he says his "playing changed a lot in a short period of time."
He especially fell in love with chamber music. (The word he uses is "obsessed.")
"Chamber music at Juilliard and my summers at the Marlboro Festival from 2006 to 2008 really changed my musical outlook," he says. "While most great composers wrote only one violin concerto, they often wrote many chamber works. Getting to know the amazing chamber music of Beethoven, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Bartok etc. 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."
More than any other young violinist active today, critics compare Hadelich with the so-called Golden Age violinists of the mid-20th century. In 2013, the Washington Post even quoted Joel Smirnoff, one of his teachers at Juilliard, saying that Hadelich sounds like the "Golden Age guys." It's not hard to see where the comparisons originated. Hadelich boasts a gorgeous silvery sound and a polite stage presence brimming with wisdom, maturity and authority.
What is it like for a modern 30-something player to be compared to towering quasi-gods like Heifetz and Oistrakh, most born more than a century ago? Once again, Hadelich answers with the frankness and humility that makes his playing so persuasive and magnetic.
"I am honored that my playing would remind listeners of these violinists that I admire," he says, citing Oistrakh and Stern as particular inspirations. "Their playing was not only beautiful, but they never vainly celebrated themselves; their focus was always the composer. This was something that influenced me deeply and that I strive for also."
The focus this weekend will be less on the violinist and more on Beethoven's glorious Violin Concerto. And that's clearly the way Hadelich likes it.
Jun Märkl, conductor
Augustin Hadelich, violin
Click here to visit the official Minnesota Orchestra event page.