The German violinist Augustin Hadelich, who played in the opening BSO concert last year [see review here], opens the Jordan Hall season for A Far Cry this Friday. Crier violinist Alex Fortes conversed with him earlier this week.
AF: We in A Far Cry are very excited to be working with you this week. What’s your experience with the Shostakovich Sonata, in this arrangement or in other versions?
AH: I first started looking at this piece a long time ago, when I was around 12 years old. I got the music to the Shostakovich Sonata because I heard the recording of Oistrakh playing it with Sviatoslav Richter. I was really taken with the piece and started learning it, but I never got around to performing it. Again and again, I’ve thought about the Shostakovich Violin Sonata but I’ve often found it hard to program. It doesn’t get performed a lot because it can sometimes be a bit dry to audiences in its original form.
I’m so happy to finally return to this piece and have the opportunity to perform it. I think that this arrangement for violin, string orchestra, and percussion is really a great arrangement. It’s very faithful to the message and substance of the original. It doesn’t add anything that’s not needed — it’s really the same piece — but it brings to life all these characters and colors that in the original are already there, but implied. When you hear the piano playing in the original version, you can imagine that it is lyrical string playing or militaristic percussion playing. In this case, it’s realized in a really beautiful way.
Our program, which was designed by Crier Annie Rabbat, is called Return to the Idyll. It starts out with Thomas Ades’s Arcadiana, seven short pastoral vignettes. Then we go to a very different place with the Shostakovich before returning to the pastoral mode in Janacek’s seven-movement Idyll. So we have music that’s pastoral and bucolic framing this piece by Shostakovich that’s anything but. What sorts of characters do you find in this piece and what place does it have in your emotional spectrum and thoughts?
Shostakovich, especially in his later works, is very dark and pessimistic, overall. It’s interesting because this is something that for me, with my character and disposition, especially when I was younger, I found it harder to connect to. I think I’m more of an optimist than he was.
The second movement is the most famous and memorable part of the work. It’s the kind of Shostakovich that’s very percussive, very aggressive, very angry and desperate. It goes on continuously without any relief. The whole second movement is just relentless. It works particularly well in this arrangement because the percussion adds more intensity to the martial, militaristic rhythms in his music. In the original version, the violin and piano are often imitating the sounds of snare drums, so it’s really great to actually hear the military instruments themselves.
It’s not so easy to describe the other movements. How would you describe them? Overall the mood is very bleak, right?
It’s very bleak, but there’s also a tenderness there, right?
Yes, it’s very soulful. It never loses its humanity, which is part of what makes Shostakovich’s music so powerful. This is why people will come to listen to a late Shostakovich work, combining tragedy and pessimism with tenderness and humanity, which Shostakovich communicates very well.
Another question: Your career allows you to play around the world in a variety of settings. In the spring, you premiered a work for solo violin by David Lang. You spent the summer at various chamber music festivals, as well as at countless orchestral collaborations such as your appearance at Tanglewood with the BSO in August. Now you’re working with A Far Cry, which has 18 people speaking up during rehearsal and no conductor to directly collaborate with you. What are the most striking differences you find between these kinds of playing and rehearsing?
The more I’ve been playing in these various different settings, the more I feel like they are in the end not so different as one might expect. I came to chamber music pretty late, because of where I grew up—I grew up in Italy in a more rural area so I was playing mostly with pianists and sometimes with orchestra, but there weren’t many chamber music opportunities. When I started playing chamber music, it opened my eyes to what music was really about. If you have played a lot of chamber music, if you then go back to a concerto or sonata, you understand it differently. First, because you may have gotten to know the chamber music by the same composer, but also, you are listening to the other stuff that’s going on and looking at the whole score differently.
I find this to be true with a lot of violin concertos (for example, the Brahms, where the violin often does not have the dominant line), where you have to listen to the other instruments and have a type of communication with the conductor that’s similar to what you would do in a chamber setting. It’s really like chamber music on a larger scale, just with more people, with more going on, in a bigger hall.
Solo violin is actually quite different, because nobody else is involved. It’s only you and the audience. On the one hand it’s really freeing—you can do whatever—but it’s also really scary because there is no one to rely on but yourself, and that is totally different. It’s wonderful but it’s also exhausting.
I have to confess that I haven’t played a lot with conductorless chamber orchestras. Only a couple times in my life. But I don’t think it needs to be that different. Sometimes, inexperienced conductors can get in the way. The great conductors that I’ve worked with know when not to conduct. Some of these old eminent conductors start doing really minimal movements or even stop conducting and let people play, because sometimes that’s the best thing. So in the Shostakovich, there will be many moments that are in a way easier to play without a conductor. The difficulty is that every person involved, because they don’t have the lifeline of the conductor to fall back on for security, they need to know the piece so much better. In the end, I think it’s going to be very exciting—it’s a great arrangement, a great piece, great people, great musicians. It’s going to be fun.
One last question — in 2006 you won the Indianapolis Violin Competition, which is being held again this week. Do you have any thoughts about your experience since then as well as advice for this year’s competitors?
I’m just so happy that I’m not there and don’t have to compete. That was one of my first thoughts when I won that competition: “Thank God I never have to do this again!” My story in Indianapolis had a happy ending and I think back to it very fondly. But while I was doing it I was incredibly stressed. I had to play against other people rather than with other people. So my heart goes out to the competitors and what they’re going through.
That competition opened a lot of doors for me. A lot of people had not heard of me before and heard of me for the first time watching the streams of the competition. I think it was one of the first to be live-streamed. It made a big difference for me.
As to what it means to win a competition, nowadays there are a lot of competitions. Most people don’t keep track of who wins what. The most important things are the opportunities—the concerts you get to play in the first few years after the competition, where you get to prove what you can do. The real test is in these couple of years, whether the places you go decide to invite you back. That’s more work than the competition itself, and it’s very hard. I’d never played that many concerts before and so I learned a lot over those first couple years about how I need to work and plan and travel.
I can’t believe it’s been eight years. I’ve always heard that time passes faster as you get older, and really the first four years after that competition were much slower than the next four, so it really is true.
Thanks for your time and insights.