Call me sentimental, but when I hear a story about a talented performer in the arts world who suffers adversity and triumphs against tremendous odds, well, it steals my heart. It gets me rallying around that person. That I should be won over by the performer’s talent, musicality, peerless technique, before learning his backstory, well, that makes it all the more sweeter. One performance by German violinist Augustin Hadelich (via live Internet streaming of the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis) and I was smitten.
Flashback to 1999. At age fifteen, child prodigy violinist Augustin Hadelich was badly burned in an accident at the family farm in Tuscany. He was hospitalized with extensive burns to his upper body, face and right hand, putting his career, not to mention his life, at risk. The next two years included months in the hospital, twenty surgeries, slow rehabilitation, pushing past pain, doubt, skepticism that he’d ever play the violin again, much less perform professionally. But he persevered, made his way back, and in 2006 he won first place in the International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Which, if you’re a ballet person reading this, is like the Prix de Lausanne, the Youth America Grand Prix. It’s big. It’s an international career launcher.
This season Augustin Hadelich made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, with the Beethoven Violin Concerto, a replacement for originally scheduled Julia Fischer, an already acclaimed violinist with an ever-growing reputation. It was a thrill to go to the concert and watch the sublime be replaced by the equally sublime.
A word about the Beethoven Violin Concerto, using another ballet analogy. It’s one of the pinnacles of the concerto repertoire, not something for the unseasoned performer, much in the way Swan Lake necessitates a prima ballerina. Both roles demand the top level of artistry, technique, artistic sensibility and musicality. Some well-known violinists won’t even include the Beethoven Violin Concerto in their concertizing repertoire—it’s that challenging, that easy to get wrong.
The second movement, the Larghetto, orchestral-speaking, is majestic, stirring, but the violin solo parts are deceptively sweet-sounding, almost meditative. It’s so much more about interpretation than flash. Here, as in much of the concerto, the violin part is exposed, like a solitaire diamond. No hiding a flaw. From my first tier corner seat (read: economically distant) I could almost feel Hadelich’s concentration, his intention. He is a thoughtful musician whose intelligence and reverence for the piece shine through. The audience was utterly engrossed, almost leaning in so as to catch every nuance. One of my favorite moments is when a talented musician pauses, allows a split second of silence during their solo cadenza, and here you are in this 2000 seat concert hall, all of you, listening. That night you could hear a pin drop as the last of the violin’s silvery tones, the sympathetic vibrations from Hadelich’s 1723 Stradivarius, rose into the air and dissipated.
The third movement is more jaunty and triumphant, and Hadelich switched moods, producing a blazingly fast, sharply articulated cadenza that seemed infectious, propelling the orchestra behind him to redouble their energy as well. The momentum built so high that the instant Hadelich and the San Francisco Symphony played the last note, the audience was on their feet, roaring with approval.
What a glorious coup for Hadelich and Beethoven alike. And yet Beethoven likely went to his grave thinking he’d gotten it wrong. Composed in 1806, a violin concerto ahead of its time, the premiere was not a success, and the concerto was dropped from performance repertoire for nearly forty years, revived only after his death, by twelve-year old prodigy Joseph Joachim with Felix Mendelssohn conducting. That Beethoven never received the acclaim he deserved for this masterpiece is heartbreaking. It’s as heartbreaking as what might have been, had Augustin Hadelich believed the people who told him his chances of playing the violin again, performing again, were slim.
You know, there’s something rather Zen and philosophical about that all. Into the fire. Amid the ashes of what you’d been, in Hadelich’s case, a child prodigy, and the truth is, a lot of child prodigies don’t make it over that hurdle into adulthood. But this, a two year period, regenerating, rebuilding, quite literally, letting go of what you’d been, what you’d once achieved. Breaking your psyche down to its core—what can you not live without? What one thing will you fight with your life for? The answer for Augustin Hadelich was this: to play the violin. He didn’t want a life compromised by its absence. He therefore struggled, fought, persevered in his goal to get back to what he’d been. Twenty surgeries later, having surely suffered setbacks, limitations, relearning, re-doing, he returned to the stage, brilliant and triumphant, fiery in his artistry.
Well done, Augustin Hadelich. May this be first of many performances with the San Francisco Symphony for you.
Here’s Hadelich playing Schumann, the Sonata for Piano and Violin no. 1, in a gorgeous, equally impressive black-and-white filming. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8z21gukj_u0