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)

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