The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Acclaimed violinist Augustin Hadelich talks about Prokofiev’s story-telling style, his own recovery from injuries, and the need to balance a warm sound with stylistic authenticity. He performs this weekend with the Madison Symphony Orchestra.

January 17, 2012
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ALERT: This week’s FREE Friday Noon Musicale at the First Unitarian Society Meeting House, 900 University Bay Drive, from 12:15 to 1 p.m., will features violinist Leanne League and pianist Dan Broner in Brahms‘ Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major. For more information, visit:

By Jacob Stockinger

The second half of the concert season is picking up steam fast this week. This weekend the Madison Symphony Orchestra will offer what to The Ear promises to be one of the highlights of the season.

Conductor John DeMain (below, in a photo by James Gill) will lead the MSO with guest violinist Augustin Hadelich in Prokofiev’s irresistible Violin Concerto No. 2. The appealing program is rounded out by Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2 “Winter Dreams” and Debussy’s “Images No. 2: Iberia.”

Performances are in Overture Hall on Friday at 7:30 p.m.; Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Tickets are $13.50 to $78.50 and are available from the Overture Center box office and by calling 608 258-4141.

For more information about the concert, including background and reviews of the critically acclaimed Hadelich, visit:

For a downloadable notes about the program, visit:

Hadelich – one of a number of rising young stars on the violin – recently gave this blog an email interview from St. Paul, where he was performing Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto.

You will perform Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 with the Madison Symphony Orchestra and you recently recorded his Sonata No. 2. Do you feel especially drawn to Prokofiev (below) and why? What do find remarkable or noteworthy about his music?

I’ve always felt that his music is particularly descriptive; he’s always telling a story. I like to imagine scenes and stories when playing his music. It often reminds me of fairy tales, and is so evocative that it’s hard not to imagine witches riding around broomsticks, tender love- scenes, and wild chases.

What would you like the public to know about the concerto and the way you play it?

The second concerto contains one of the most beautiful slow movements in the violin repertoire. That’s the part of the piece that I always look forward to playing the most.

I always have a lot of fun playing the last movement as well, which has some Spanish flair (with castanets and everything). The whole piece is full of character and very evocative. Prokofiev wrote it while he was on a concert tour to beautiful places like Paris and Madrid, and in Russia, and one can hear all those influences in the music.

I suspect you don’t really want to talk in detail about the accident and burns you suffered at 15 that threatened your career. But I wonder if you had any advice to professional or amateur musicians who might have sustained an injury or disability of some kind, but who want to continue somehow to make music?

My injuries didn’t affect my playing very much, since the muscles and tendons of my arms and hands ended up not being hurt. But there was definitely a lot of uncertainty, because the depth of the burns wasn’t immediately clear. Not being able to play anymore is a violinist’s worst nightmare!

For playing the violin, injuries to the tendons, muscles and, most of all, the nerves are definitely more serious. I have some experience with tendonitis myself (unrelated to the burns), and I have found that changing my practicing routine, changing fingerings (to ease the stress on the affected finger), and warming up a lot more before I start working can help a lot. However, the most important thing — and the hardest thing — with any injury is to be patient.

I very much like the program on your new CD that mixes French and Russian composers who lived in exile in France. Could you discuss how you chose the works and put together the program? What did you want the selection to say to the listener?

I thought up the program of “Echoes of Paris” (below) because I had been playing these four pieces together in recital programs and felt that there were these connections between their styles and characters.

On paper, it may not look like they belong together on a disc, but I knew they would make a great program. I think it’s because there is a lightness to all these pieces. (The first Prokofiev sonata, which is so tragic and serious, or the Ravel sonata for example, would not have fit into the program).

I also wanted to avoid making another French album, which has been done so often by violinists. By the way, just because you’re playing four works that are all French, doesn’t mean they form a good program together!

The Debussy Sonata and Stravinsky’s “Pulcinella” Suite were written almost at the same time (1917 and 1920), and the influence of both Stravinsky and Debussy is very strong in the Poulenc sonata, which was written in the 1940s, which in turn is very close to the time when the Prokofiev second sonata was written. The second Prokofiev sonata is quite neo-Classical in style, which in turn creates a connection back to the neo-Classical suite by Stravinsky.

You have recorded baroque, classical, Romantic and modern music. Do you have a preference for certain composers or styles and eras? What qualities do you think constitute great violin or string playing?

I like to play music of all styles, and find it really refreshing to switch between repertoire and different periods. I think one of the hardest things — and a test of whether somebody is a great violinist — is whether they play music of different styles differently enough. (Many performers play everything pretty much the same way).

It’s not even just that each period that requires a different sound and approach. It’s that each composer, sometimes even individual pieces, that have to be played differently.

The sound, expression, vibrato, colors, tempi and rubati in Schumann, for example, are entirely different from those in Brahms or Mendelssohn. Debussy is different from Ravel; Stravinsky is entirely different from Prokofiev; and Mozart is very different from Haydn (below, the cover of Hadelich;s recording for Naxos of Haydn violin concertos) or Beethoven. It’s very important to realize what styles you’re good at, and which ones need more work. It’s a never-ending process.

Are there certain violinists in the past whom you admire and have learned from?

There was some quality, a warmth or heartfelt expression, in the playing of the great violinists of the past, which one doesn’t hear so often nowadays. I grew up particularly loving the recordings of David Oistrakh (below), whose sound and playing are so inspiring.

At the same time though, some of their interpretations seem a little arbitrary by today’s standards – sometimes it sounds like they haven’t been looking at the score at all, just at their part. I think that most of the interpretations one hears nowadays make a lot of sense, and are generally much more true to the score, but perhaps sometimes at the risk of being safe.

You performed the Mendelssohn violin concerto with the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra in 2009. Do you have an opinion about Madison and the audiences here?

I just played in St. Paul this past weekend, so I think I’ll be used to the cold when I arrive this week. I had a lovely time in Madison when I was there two years ago, and several friends of mine live there. I’m really looking forward to coming back and to playing the second Prokofiev concerto with the Madison Symphony and John DeMain.

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