When he appeared in April, 2013, with the San Francisco Symphony at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts (on the campus of U.C. Davis), we remarked that Austin Hadelich “showed a command of his instrument that clearly indicates he needs to get more exposure with the great orchestras of the world.” In the less than two years since that performance, the now 31-year-old violinist has performed around the country and throughout the world with some of the greatest orchestras and under the baton of some of the greatest conductors.
But for his return to Mondavi earlier this month, Mr. Hadelich performed without a conductor as he soloed with the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The chamber orchestra, now in its forty-third year of existence, has never had a conductor (breaking ground in that regard in its initial season) and has also established a reputation for excellence. And as might be expected, the pairing provided the less-than capacity Mondavi audience (on a weeknight) with a fully satisfying program that was flawlessly delivered.
The concert opened with the smaller chamber unit (17 strings and harpsichord) performing Handel’s Concerto Grosso in D Major. This is an early Handel work (Opus 6, Number 5) in six short parts. It was crisply played, with each opening perfectly timed (without a conductor). The tempos range from Largo to Allegro and from Minuet and Presto, and if a conductor could have managed those tempo changes more effectively, we don’t know how the performance would have been improved. Obviously, these musicians know their music, are masters of their instruments, and understand each other.
Mr. Hadelich’s two pieces followed (separated by an intermission). They were intentionally related. The first, Igor Stravinsky’s Divertimento (from the ballet “The Fairy’s Kiss”) was the composer’s homage to Tchaikovsky (whom he regarded as Russia’s greatest composer) on the thirty-fifth anniversary of his death. The ballet tells the tale of the fairy who kisses the newborn prince at his birth and then returns on his wedding day to kiss him again and take him to paradise where his joy will be preserved forever.
The Divertimento is in four parts, some of which required virtuosic playing by the soloist. Mr. Hadelich was especially impressive in the Scherzo (the third part) and the Coda that ends the piece. The orchestra provided much more than accompaniment throughout (again, sans conductor, although the musicians did respond to occasional nods from the soloist). The seamlessness of the performance was something of a wonder, elevating our appreciation of the immense talent of all concerned.
But part of the joy in a performance by Mr. Hadelich is in his smile, which is boyishly delightful. He has a truly happy face, which seems to reflect his general disposition. At least it provides him with a stage persona, and it works for us.
For his second work, Mr. Hadelich played Tchaikovsky’s “Valse-Scherzo for Violin and Orchestra,” which, as the title suggests, is a test of skill for the soloist. There is more waltz than scherzo in the piece, and the greatest challenge it presents is in moving quickly from the one tempo to the other as Tchaikovsky’s composition intends. The work features an extended cadenza at the end of the central portion of the three-part single movement. It leads to a return to the opening theme in which the full orchestra (all 31 musicians) joins the soloist in closing this delightful work. It received a rousing ovation, which Mr. Hadelich and the musicians received gracefully. He offered no encore, however.
Instead, the full orchestra returned to play Respighi’s “The Birds,” which cellist James Wilson introduced with a few tips on how to enjoy the piece. “Listen for the bird tweets,” he said, “primarily from the woodwinds, at various point throughout the piece.” They were easy to recognize for the most part, but the work is most famous for its grand theme, which is introduced in the first movement and then replayed at the close of the last. In between are movements entitled by the composer as “the Dove,” “the Hen,” “the Nightingale,” and “the Cuckoo.” Each has its distinctive sound, and each was delivered with the same flawless precision as marked this entire concert.