A Woman of Strings: Violinist Hanna Lachert (Part II)

And what of Hanna’s career? She says has had a wonderful professional career in retrospect after 40 years with the NY Phil and 60 years on the stage, after thousands of concerts. This does not mean everything was a bed of roses. However, her experience of playing as a violinist with the NY Philharmonic and sharing the stage with greatest artists of the century standing just a few feet away, and learning so much from them, is something no school could have given her! She learned a lot from her colleagues too, whom she describes as “fantastic.” These were musicians for whom the sky was the limit, who had a quest for perfection, to play each note the way the conductor wanted –and better!

At the NY Phil, she was the 6th woman when she joined—there were 100 men!—and she described herself as “liberal and a free bird, single.” She was making the same starting salary, and had her own life. But her Continental ways raised eyebrows among her more traditional male colleagues, for this was not what they expected. Hanna suggests there were some inappropriate words from colleagues (she describes them as “a few encounters”), such as when she was told her skirts were too short!

When asked about great musicians that she played with, Hanna named Horowitz, Rostropovich, all the great violinists, and singers like Domingo, Pavarotti, Price! As to which one has been most influential, she names Leonard Bernstein. She acknowledges, despite her love for “Lenny,” that he was a polarizing figure: you either had to be in his orbit, or you could not stand him—the usual reaction! Either love or hate. Perhaps others disliked his theatrics, but Hanna said this was genuine; listen to his legacy, and one can see his genius way of seeing teaching music to both musicians and listeners.

What makes for a great musician? Hanna offers some very unique insights. For the great orchestral musicians, there is no unimportant note! This is the essence. From outside, non-musicians think it’s simple “to bang” on an instrument or play, but each single note, the color, timing, or timbre, is as important as the melody, whichever instrument is carrying it. Every single bar, articulation, or rest matters. This is evident even in a great painting—take out one color, and it’s not the same. The attention to detail, to each individual note, is the difference between musicians in an ordinary orchestra and in a great one.

How has Hanna managed to do all this, to have a good professional life, while also being a wife and a mother? She credits violinmaker David Segal from whom she had full support, a man who is her husband. Hanna describes him as a second mom! She had two kids who were also musicians, involved in acting, and she and her husband were busy taking them to activities. (Son Yaniv is a conductor and composer, and daughter Adi is a visual artist.) Hanna had a solo career too, playing 10-15 concerts a season, and was artistically happy. She performed a lot of chamber music, mostly with her New York Philharmonic colleagues.

When asked if the culture of violin playing has changed over the last few decades, Hanna says an emphatic yes. That maybe today’s schooling and pedagogy are at a much higher level than before. Schools, conservatories, etcetera are full of youngsters who play tremendously well. Technique is started early for the students, as is performance. But does it make them better violinists or artists? She does not think so. Historically, Menuhin was a prodigy and so were others, but that is a separate story that cannot be compared to the path of talented young musicians. The ultimate test, she says, is over time. It also boils down to a musician’s ability to communicate. If you can do what you wish w/your instrument, she says, it comes down to if you are able to say what you want to with it. To have a dialogue and have something to offer to the audience. Musicians have to understand their world of music and what the composer is trying to say.

Which composers does Hanna Lachert wish she could have met? What are her thoughts on composers? Composers are inspired suddenly by an idea; who knows where it comes from? Mozart’s manuscripts (she has seen many in Krakow) she says are so humbling—they are perfect from start to finish, without corrections! The process of writing the idea or divine spark varies from composer to composer: it is nice to observe this process. She could have done this w/Krzysztof Penderecki, 81, one of the greatest composers, who is a friend. Hanna concludes by noting that everyone has a different technique. Time will tell who was great and who was trying hard to be great.

Thus we have some reflections by a wonderful musician and artist. Huge thanks to Hanna for her time! Do visit her website to hear her music at http://www.hannalachert.com

A Woman of Strings: Violinist Hanna Lachert (Part I)

We are incredibly lucky to have an interview with renowned violinist, Hanna Lachert! Originally from Poland, she has lived in the US for over four decades, and has played with the New York Philharmonic in addition to having a successful chamber and solo career. Hanna not only comes from a musical family, but also has a musical family of her own. While the true test of an artist is ultimately beyond gender, I asked Hanna to comment on her own experiences in being a woman in classical music. The following is from a recorded interview by Hanna, posted in two parts.

Violin culture in Poland is very much alive, and doing well. The music scene is vibrant, as is reflected in many concerts, festivals, and international and local competitions, etc. There are many orchestras, chamber music ensembles, etc. Polish violinists are concertmasters of orchestras around the world!

The roots of Polish violin music go back to the medieval ages, when it was part of courtly life. Hanna continued that tradition as a member of an ensemble in the 1960s in Warsaw called “Con Moto Ma Cantabile” that was mostly strings and harpsichord. They played Polish music of the 16th and 17th centuries (plus concertos by Vivaldi). Western audiences have probably never heard of Mielczewski (1600-65), Szarzynski (also 17th century) and others. There was also Karol Lipiński (1790-1861), a contemporary of Paganini. He left a large body of work for violin, including concerti, symphonies, caprices, and other works. Perhaps the ultimate compliment came from Paganini, who himself is considered by many to be the greatest virtuoso violinist who ever lived. While Paganini said he did not know who the greatest violinist was, the second would certainly be Lipiński!

Then of course there was Henryk Wieniawski (1835 – 1880), a major violin virtuoso and composer for whom the Poznań International Violin competition is named. Wieniawski was employed by the czar in St. Petersburg; there, he started what we know of today as the Russian school, which was later developed by Auer. One of his trips took him to America for 8 months, where he played 215 concerts with pianist Anton Rubinstein!

The next major figure that Hanna cites is Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937). His input into the literature of the violin is enormous. With the help of his violinist friend Paul Kochański, a new sound was created in compositions like Myths, two violin concerti, symphonies, and others. Hanna finds his music mesmerizing! Szymanowski’s music is still played globally, thus bringing Poland’s contributions to a wider audience. In addition to violin music, there is also symphonic music from Poland that Hanna finds significant. Karłowicz (1876 – 1909), who died tragically in an avalanche, wrote symphonic poems in addition to a noted violin concerto.

In the 20th century, Bronisław Huberman (1882-1947), a virtuoso violinist, created the Israel Philharmonic. Of course there were violinists Henryk Szeryng (1918-88) and Ida Haendel. Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69), a woman composer, left a large legacy of music for the violin, such as sonatas, concerti, quartets, etcetera, that are widely performed in Poland and abroad. A current composer of note is Penderecki, who has written several concerti for famed violinists Isaac Stern, Anne-Sophie Mutter, as well as symphonies and chamber music.

But what about our interviewee herself? What was her journey as a violinist?

Not surprisingly, Hanna comes from a musical family. Her mother was a pianist, and her brother is a pianist and composer. When asked about the status of women in classical music in Poland, she provided an answer that some may find surprising. When she came to the US in her early 20’s and with a Master’s, she found a discrepancy between the number of men and women in music, as there was total gender equality in Poland! She says she has done, and still does well, as a female violinist.

But before coming to America, Hanna went from Warsaw to Hanover, Germany to study with Andre Gertler. Then came a twist of fate that changed her life: a Polish expatriate violinist who was visiting from the United States offered her a graduate assistantship to study at the University of Connecticut. Hanna thought it was terrific, but there were the nuts and bolts questions of a visa, passport, etcetera. She stayed in Europe, going to Belgium for another degree, and then finally came to New York and on to Connecticut. The musical culture she found in New York completely floored her! The amount of concerts, choices, was (and is) in her view unparalleled. She has traveled to the great capitals of the world and is very knowledgeable about classical music all over; while she finds the quality in those cities excellent, she says nothing compares to New York. One of the first things Hanna observed in New York was that it was possible to find absolutely everything! Be it ancient or new, from Africa or Antarctica, everything was available. And that was also the case with music. In general, she says all the performing arts flourish in New York. She also says that performances in concert series given at universities around the country are also amazing – something America can be proud of!

But this is not enough. What is problematic is the lack of basic musical and arts education in our elementary schools. Hanna wisely mentions that science has been proving the effect of music on our developing brains, something that is very effective in our lives. Hanna adds that it is even more important now, as children and teenagers are spending more and more time in front of a screen, that they balance this by immersing themselves in the world of the arts, especially in music–whatever instrument they choose.

(Part II will follow; meanwhile, visit http://www.hannalachert.com)