Review: Augustin Hadelich Performs Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in Los Angeles

October 24, 2023, 1:49 PM · Apparently it was THE weekend in Los Angeles for hearing concert violinists: While Augustin Hadelich gave a master class at the Colburn School plus two performances of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Hilary Hahn gave three performances of the Sibelius Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall. Simultaneously, another local series featured the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto - violinist Diana Adamyan performed it twice on Saturday with the Pasadena Symphony.

I was performing in the second fiddles for the Pasadena Symphony series and thus did not make it to everything, as much as I wanted to. I missed Hahn's Sibelius, but I was able to go on Sunday night to see Hadelich with LACO, and I am happy to report a robust audience that included a lot of young people, as well as a great many local violinists, students and teachers.

LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer had introduced Hadelich few days earlier at his master class in a way that describes how many violinists feel: "He is one of my favorite violinists living today," Batjer said. "It's rare to find a violinist with the whole package...he is truly a musician's musician."

And Hadelich delivered: playing on the 1744 "Leduc/Szerying" Guarneri "del Gesù" violin, he presented an exciting and refined performance with LACO and conductor Jaime Martín. There are a good many ways one can play the Mendelssohn, as evidenced in the mountain of recordings that exist of this work. Written in the mid 19th century, it's a piece that can lean toward the Classical, or toward a more Romantic style. Hadelich has talked about growing up with this piece, learning it as a child and then revisiting it in great depth as a mature artist.

This night, it felt like a 21st century take by a 21st century virtuoso - several hundred years' worth of ideas and scholarship about this piece distilled by one thoughtful and powerfully accomplished artist.

Augustin Hadelich Jaime Martin  LACO
Violinist Augustin Hadelich and LACO Music Director Jaime Martín. Photo by Brian Feinzimer.

And that is not to say it sounded "scholarly." This was Mendelssohn on fire - fast and exhilarating in the outer movements, with liquid gold in the center for the middle movement.

It was a crowd-pleasing performance, as evidenced by countless ovations at the end (at least I lost count!). But it also was rich with details for those of us sitting in the audience with the score in mind. Just one example, those irksome octaves on the first page. Yes, of course he played them with perfect-pitch precision in a way that few of us can pull off. But additionally, do most violinists bother to emphasize (or even notice) the fact that the entire octave run starts on a pick-up note? Hadelich does.

This accumulation of so many details, so well attended to, performed with such obvious joy and ease - elevated his performance to the level of rare artistry. In the first movement, every note popped, with well-calibrated dynamics and a great deal of care in every phrase. A very deliberate change of tempo toward the end of the movement, clearly initiated by Hadelich, was quite effective. The end of the movement continued accelerating, reaching thrill-ride levels - despite their nimble skill, LACO was hard-pressed to keep up!

Hadelich has said that the beautiful melody in Mendelssohn second-movement helped him fall in love with the del Gesù violin that he plays, and it is easy to see why. The violin's sweet resonance was just the right kind of paint for Hadelich's considerable expressive palette, with so many colors of vibrato and control in every bow stroke. Pure and beautiful.

The third movement was fast and driven - notes did not just fall in place, but every up-bow came with its own energetic re-take. The clarity was remarkable - a blizzard of notes where you could see every individual snowflake. Running passages sizzled with completely articulate spiccato, every extra effort was made. Yet, while it was not what I would call "effortless," it was still playful, relaxed and joyous.

The standing ovation was immediate following Hadelich's performance, and after several ovations Hadelich performed an encore: his own virtuosic take on Wild Fiddler's Rag (originally by the American bluegrass fiddler Howdy Forrester and recorded in the late 1970s by Mark O'Connor).

Augustin Hadelich LACO
Violinist Augustin Hadelich with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Photo by Brian Feinzimer.

After this came four more standing ovations, thus he played a second encore, his own arrangement of the sentimental tango Por Una Cabeza by Carlos Gardel (featured in the movie "Scent of a Woman"). It's a clever arrangement, with the dance rhythm embedded in double-stops, several voices all going at once - in turns virtuosic and tender. More ovations followed - it seemed clear that the audience would have tried to keep Hadelich playing all night, had the orchestra not needed to take its break!

Backing up, the concert began with a 2022 piece by Chinese composer and vocalist Dai Wei called "Invisible Portals." With a background in popular music, she also has studied composition at the University of North Carolina, Curtis Institute and Princeton University, where she is currently working on her PhD.

Dai Wei provided live vocals as pre-recorded vocal tracks for the piece, which was inspired by a trip to Tibet, where she learned a Tibetan story about a legendary realm of peace and prosperity called Shambhala. Her piece also featured electronics and many live affects: wind players blowing through their instruments, glissandi - even musicians saying "Shhhhhhh!"

It was a likable piece - tonal and echoey, and the electronics melded pleasantly with the live music on stage.

The concert concluded with W.A. Mozart's Symphony No. 41 in C major, "Jupiter," K. 551. It is a late work - Mozart's last symphony - and the musicians of LACO played this familiar work with what I could only describe as "love." While some ensembles look they they are "working" when they are performing, I sensed a true affection as they entered a kind of flow in which they were not just playing the notes but embodying the many permutations of emotion that those notes represented. The musicians frequently looked at each other, as quartet players do. When there was a musical question, it truly felt like someone was waiting for the answer.

Martín, conducting without a baton, provided spark with gestures truly his own - a burst with the fingers, a nod, a point, a punch, a series of shrugs. I've always thought the best conductors have the quirkiest gestures because their dance is for the musicians making the music, and only secondarily for the audience. I leave it to the LACO musicians to make that judgement, but it seems to me to be the case here.

In all, it was a satisfying evening of exquisite music-making.

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October 24, 2023 at 06:55 PM · By the way - I did meet at least one young violin student who went to ALL of these violin-related events over the weekend: 8-year-old Olivia and her mother went to Hadelich's master class Friday (so did I - write-up to come!), saw Hilary Hahn with the LA Phil that night, attended the matinee performance Saturday in Pasadena with Diana Adamyan, went to LACO that night to see Hadelich - then went again to see Hadelich perform Sunday night - at her request! Definitely a young aficionado!

October 25, 2023 at 05:42 AM · Beautiful reflections on a week of happy coincidences!

October 25, 2023 at 08:12 AM · great review Laurie, thanks!

October 26, 2023 at 12:39 PM · Sounds divine on all levels! Thank you, Laurie!

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