Violin Master Class with Augustin Hadelich at Colburn

November 2, 2023, 2:47 PM · Violinist Augustin Hadelich is a master of detail - in sound, intonation, gradations of volume, articulation, vibrato... So what is it like when he teaches a master class?

Violinists from all over the Los Angeles area flocked to the Colburn School on Oct. 20 to find out, when Hadelich gave a master class sponsored by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), with whom he was playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto later that week.

In fact, organizers had to move the master class a larger hall when the venue couldn't accommodate the many people who signed up to attend, and even the larger Zipper Hall was at near-capacity with a crowd that included university professors, Suzuki teachers, college students and young students (I was sitting next to a five-year-old violin student!)

Augustin Hadelich Colburn 2023
Master Class at the Colburn School: (L-R) Qiaorong Ma, Augustin Hadelich, Wenlan Jackson and Duncan McDougall.

For a little background, Hadelich was born in Italy of German descent and is now an American citizen, making his home in Hartford, Conn. He joined the faculty of Yale School of Music in 2021, and to the delight of those in the Suzuki community, in 2022 he made the reference recordings for Suzuki Violin Books 4, 5 and 6. His many other recordings include some of the most central and challenging works ever written for violin, including all 24 Paganini Caprices and the entire J.S. Bach's Six Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin.

The master class began with a performance of the first movement from Brahms' Violin Concerto in D Major by Qiaorong Ma, a student at the University of Southern California, with pianist Yu-Ting Peng. Ma played with intense energy and good posture, also showing that she could hold the moment nicely when the music calls for that.

Augustin Hadelich Qiaorong Ma
Master Class at the Colburn School: Augustin Hadelich and Qiaorong Ma.

She did have some intonation issues and that was the focus of Hadelich's first comments.

"You are playing the way it resonates with your instrument, and you need to adjust to the piano," Hadelich said. When you are the soloist, intonation always needs to be heard relative to the piano or orchestra. The important thing is to center the main notes of the harmony, he said. You can get away with a leading tone being a little sharp, but notes that are the roots of the chords must really match.

Ma said that when she gets nervous, it sometimes affects her intonation.

"Part of the trick," Hadelich said, "is if you are able to realize what is happening and adjust in the moment." It's important to keep the pitch from creeping up - getting more and more sharp. "Don't stay on a note if it is not matching," he said.

"I thought the opening had the right kind of energy," Hadelich said of her introduction. The beginning of the Brahms concerto features a series of downward runs where Brahms creates an acceleration that is inherent in the written rhythms. First, quarter notes turn to eighths, to triplets. In the next run, triplets turn to to sixteenths. "It's not so much a rhythmic exercise as a direction," Hadelich said. It goes in the direction of speeding up, but "I'd love to be a little less aware of the changes," he said. For example, he didn't want to hear exactly when triplet changes to 16th.

Brahms example 1

To demonstrate, Hadelich played the introduction in an incredibly well-calibrated way, with the rhythms melding seamlessly from slower to faster to create the acceleration - a typical listener wouldn't know exactly where triplets fell way to 16th notes. He said the secret was to start the triplets a bit slower.

Those dramatic runs at the beginning, which sound like so much flustered activity, at last land on D major - "finally, like a ray of sunshine," Hadelich said. For that arrival the sound should change to something more transparent-sounding, with a faster bow speed.

Hadelich then demonstrated the first beautiful melodic theme of this piece:

Brahms example 2

His sound was so gobsmacking it was hard concentrate on anything other than how good it sounded, BUT he was making a point - in the orchestra score, the violas are playing underneath all this, and while the soloist might bend time with some rubato, it's not necessary to make the violas adjust their accompanying figures. Stretch the half-notes, but then move with direction on the quarters so that the rhythmic math all works out.

He made the point again about rhythms: "This is a feature of Brahms' music - rhythms are not the way they are written - the music is always a bit in flux." That is to say: the notation should not be taken literally; there is a pulse to be found. He also warned against taking time in too many places - do it only in a few places, and otherwise allow the music to move.

In this melody:

Brahms example 3

...use bow distribution for the swells, and don't let the direction of the bow change your intended dynamics, he said. Some down-bows will need a crescendo, and the crescendos should sound the same, played down or up.

In this passage:

Brahms example 4

"Don't let it get too triplet-y," Hadelich said. Dotted 16ths can unwittingly turn into triplets - and then they lose their edge.

Next Duncan McDougall, a student at the Colburn School, performed Ysaÿe's Sonata No. 4 for solo violin. His style was gentle and refined, with really impressive control over the many double-stops and complex voicing in this piece.

Augustin Hadelich Duncan McDougall
Master Class at the Colburn School: Augustin Hadelich and Duncan McDougall.

As McDougall played the fast-moving Finale with astonishing accuracy, it occurred to me that Hadelich is just the right kind of teacher to help a student achieve that final, finishing percentage point of excellence. The last bit is the part that is hardest to achieve - or even sometimes to perceive. Certainly, Hadelich has exceptional powers of perception.

Hadelich said that McDougall was most successful in the exploratory, improvisatory sections of the piece, but needed to explore those areas when the music gets louder. "It's a little nice, it could be a little more brutal."

In the first movement, it grows louder and louder, then Ysaÿe slows the tempo - "You can get a bit more bombastic," Hadelich said, "as massive as you can make it!"

When you get to the top - take some time, enjoy those notes, and put some shimmer on them, he said.

Skipping to the running notes of the third movement, "I thought you came to rest a few too many times - it just keeps going," Hadelich said. "Don't lengthen notes too much - it keeps going."

"Try to avoid those moments of hesitation," yet at the same time, do set the beginning of each new pattern. Chords can receive a longer articulation, but they should not be rhythmically different. "Longer" may be simply "not bouncing." At the end, each chord is more emphatic, and one can use bow speed for accents, with big gestures for the high notes at the end.

Back to the second-movement Sarabande, which starts with a long series of plucked notes, "your pizzicati are beautiful," Hadelich said. (They were!)

At one point Hadelich and McDougall were poring over the details of this already very-detailed score, and it's clear that Hadelich pointed out some very interesting things, as McDougall nodded more and more emphatically as they went along.

Hadelich McDougall

As LACO concertmaster Margaret Batjer mentioned in introducing him at the beginning of the master class, Hadelich truly is a musician's musician. I imagined what it would be like to study with him at Yale University - very detailed, individualized attention.

Next Wenlan Jackson, a student at the Colburn School, performed Wieniawski's "Fantasia on Themes from 'Faust'" with pianist Alice Yoo. Playing from memory, Jackson performed with confidence and precision, displaying a wide range of violin pyrotechnics - very high notes, double-stops, fast passagework, runs, harmonics, etc. Sitting on the side of the stage and reading the score from an iPad, Hadelich smiled frequently as she exhibited one technique after another in this playful and humorous piece.

Augustin Hadelich Wenlan Jackson
Master Class at the Colburn School: Augustin Hadelich and Wenlan Jackson.

"It's very enjoyable to listen to," Hadelich said. "You already have the charm of it."

First, Hadelich offered some supplemental ideas for those high-level technical feats, which she was already performing very well. In one case there was a descending double-stop run, achieved with a sort of vibrato shake-down motion in the left hand. He suggested adding a portato in the bow to delineate the notes, taking some pressure off the left-hand.

Another idea involved a descending run that used a ricochet bow. For this, the ricochet was strong at the beginning but petered out somewhat, so the notes weren't as clear for the whole run. He suggested using a more shallow ricochet with a faster-speed bow to get more bounces for the run, and this did work very well to make the entire run audible.

To put the icing on the cake, Hadelich wanted to hear more "operatic moments," since this was a fantasia based on themes from Gounod's opera "Faust."

"It's almost too tasteful," he said. He offered some options for creating that operatic atmosphere: taking a bit of extra time in places, as a singer would; adding drama with more "operatic slides"; and using a more emphatic vibrato in certain places.

"All the emotions are more extreme in opera," he said, "this is a piece where you can really go there."

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