If you ask any violinist today who their favorite living violin soloist is, virtuoso Augustin Hadelich's name often rises to the top. His stunning combination of technical prowess and searing emotional intensity make for exciting performances and even more thrilling recordings; in 2016, Hadelich won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo for his album of Henri Dutilleux’s Violin Concerto, L’arbre des songes, with the Seattle Symphony. On January 5 and 6, you’ll have the chance to see what all the buzz is about when he returns to Orchestra Hall to perform Benjamin Britten’s Violin Concerto with Thomas Søndergård.
As we prepare to welcome Hadelich back to our stage, he told us about working with Thomas, the power of Britten’s Violin Concerto and why he’s looking forward to performing with the Minnesota Orchestra again.
You’ve developed a strong working relationship with our new Music Director Thomas Søndergård. Could you share with us how that relationship developed and what keeps it so fruitful to this day?
We met once many years ago, but our first collaboration was actually recently, with the Cincinnati Symphony [in January 2023]. We also played the Britten concerto there. It’s a piece where you really bare your feelings, so we did get to know each other very well!
What, in your mind, makes the Britten Violin Concerto a special piece?
Benjamin Britten was just 23 years old in 1938, when he wrote this concerto for the Spanish violinist Antonio Brosa. Even years later, he felt that it was one of his greatest creations.
Britten was a passionate pacifist who was horrified by the events of the civil war in Spain. Although the work is not overtly programmatic, it can be seen as Britten’s expression of his anguish about the conflict, his struggle to come to terms with humanity’s destructive tendencies and his search to find hope again.
In his youthful excitement, he may have gone overboard in loading the work with every extended violin technique he knew—some passages are barely playable! Perhaps the most difficult of all the concertos written before 1950, this must be one reason that it took more than 60 years until it finally established itself in the core violin repertoire. In spite of his fondness for such instrumental hurdles, most of Britten’s music is written with the human voice in mind, and this concerto is full of lyricism.
The first movement opens with a motive in the timpani—a nod to the Beethoven Violin Concerto. An idyllic theme in the violin quickly sings itself into a frenzy. A militaristic march intrudes and threatens the peace in this first movement, the ending of which feels to me like the calm before the storm.
All hell breaks loose in the second movement, which is where the influence of Prokofiev can be heard vividly. If the first movement was the idyll of pre-war Spain under the threat of nationalism, the second movement is the war itself. Its wailing, sorrowful second theme is a reference to Flamenco music. The cadenza serves as the emotional climax of the concerto, with the violinist being pushed to the limit both technically and emotionally. In the cadenza's most anguished moment, I am asked to play a held note while plucking, as loud as possible, the opening motif of the concerto with the two left hand fingers that aren’t already in use. It’s a technique that is sometimes employed by virtuosos such as Paganini and Ernst; when Britten employs it, the physical discomfort and tension is actually the point!
A slow ascending scale—perhaps the most heart-wrenching scale I know—leads into the last movement.”
This last movement is written as a passacaglia—a form in which the bass line repeats during a series of variations. This might be Britten’s struggle to process the events of the war, as well as the overall situation of the world in 1938. The movement moves from anguish and despair; to attempts at forgetting—perhaps through drinking and dancing; to attempts at a bombastic sort of patriotism. The haunting final section is a chorale in the brass and strings, over which the violin is searching for resolution, for a ray of light. Hope seems within Britten's grasp, only to eventually elude him—for a pacifist like him, there is no redeeming aspect of war.
No matter how many times I perform this piece, it is a powerful emotional journey, and hard to find words at its end!
You recently added the music of composer Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges to your repertoire. What makes this composer and his music appealing to you?
Chevalier de Saint-Georges wrote a huge amount of violin music, which was mostly forgotten after his death. I find his music to be really delightful, virtuosic and inspired.
During the first pandemic lockdown, when I was recording a lot of videos from home, I searched the violin duo repertoire looking for unusual and obscure pieces to record, when I found a volume of violin duos by Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I really enjoyed the one in A major, which was whimsical and outrageous.
Chevalier de Saint-Georges often gets compared to Mozart, but while I think Chevalier’s influence can be heard in Mozart’s violin concertos, I think that they had kind of opposite personalities! That’s why I find that it doesn’t work that well to put their music on the same program. Chevalier’s music is flashy, extroverted and totally focused on the violin soloist—he was a flamboyant show-off! Mozart’s music on the other hand is about balance, the golden mean, the classical ideal—the violinist doesn’t show off, the pieces are beautiful but not about virtuosity. The better I got to know Chevalier de Saint-Georges’ music, the more I feel that comparing him to Mozart is an apples to oranges comparison!
What are you looking forward to most about your return to the Minnesota Orchestra?
Every time I’ve played with the Minnesota Orchestra, I’ve been so impressed with their sound and artistry. I’m excited to return now with Britten, a work that I was originally scheduled to perform with the Orchestra in 2020—an appearance canceled due to the pandemic. It’s a piece very dear to my heart, and the topic of the music is now more relevant than ever.
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