Will Hagen: Young 'Mozart' juggling music career, high school
Like most 17-year-olds, Will Hagen likes to hang out with friends, play video games and eat burgers and fries. He also is athletic enough to make the varsity baseball team at East High School, where his buddies call him either a slugger or -- his other talent -- a Mozart.
His musical abilities are the not the first thing fellow students notice, but Hagen is a prodigiously talented violinist who is juggling national concert appearances with the ups and downs of high-school life.
Hagen made the tough decision not to play varsity baseball this season. He loves the game, but knew he couldn't give the team his best. Hagen is a violinist first, and his lifelong dream of a concert career is beginning to bud. Baseball practice had to give way to concert engagements.
"I make so many good friendships through baseball that it's hard to give it up. I especially miss hitting the ball," Hagen said. "I don't think about it as much now, but sometimes I really wish I could go take batting practice with the rest of the team."
Instead, Hagen is preparing to play Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 for the home crowd this weekend at Abravanel Hall. It's the kind of venue he hopes to see more of in the future. He's making his debut on the Utah Symphony Masterworks Series, having previously performed with the orchestra at the Deer Valley Music Festival and on several youth and school concerts.
The engagement came through Keith Lockhart, the Utah Symphony's former music director, said the orchestra's CEO, Melia Tourangeau. Lockhart was impressed by Hagen several years ago and booked him for the Deer Valley Music Festival and a summer tour. Betting on a youthful unknown was a dicey move that paid off, Tourangeau said.
Since then, Hagen has gained valuable experience in front of several well-known orchestras. He performed with the Jacksonville and St. Louis symphonies, and with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra on NPR's "From the Top" series.
"I remember it being minus 15 degrees with wind chill," Hagen said of the trip to Buffalo. "That's what I remember most -- and just how fun that performance was."
Hagen began playing the violin at age 4 and was remarkable from the start. He worked with teachers Natalie Reed and Deborah Moench in Salt Lake City. At age 9, he began making weekly trips to Los Angeles for lessons with Robert Lipsett at the Colburn School of Performing Arts.
Lipsett is "one of the foremost violin teachers in the United States, without question," said Utah Symphony concertmaster Ralph Matson.
Matson remembers the first time he heard Hagen play and how the young prodigy distinguished himself among the many talented young musicians Utah produces.
"Not only was this a youngster who played very well, but there was something special, something that grabbed you about his playing," Matson said. "There was an extra dimension of musical understanding and connection with what was happening, and how he was presenting it. I found that very touching."
Hagen still flies to Los Angeles for weekly lessons with Lipsett; it's a mountain of time the teacher and student have invested in each other.
"When it's all said and done, Will is a performer," Lipsett told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2006. "He's able to do breathtaking things, magical things. He gets it, at a very young age, that it's about the connection he makes between himself and the audience. It's just innate in him."
The words echo Hagen's as he describes the high-wire act of performing in front of an orchestra.
"If I'm in front of a big crowd, I kind of go into a hyper-focus where I hear everything twice as clearly," Hagen said. "I just feel the music. I don't really think about much else. Every musician feels they have this kind of sixth sense-- that you can feel the music in a way that you can't really describe."
Hagen plays on a 1665 Nicolo Amati violin on loan from the Mandell foundation, made possible through Lipsett's connections.
"It's just an incredible violin, and it's a luxury to be able to play it," Hagen said. "It's a student loan and will be taken back at some point, but I hope I can keep working with really nice Italian violins -- obviously."
Having juvenile diabetes raises the stakes a notch higher for Hagen on concert days, as he must monitor his insulin meticulously. He's nonchalant about that.
"It's not really an issue. It only becomes an issue if you let it get out of hand. It's tedious, that's the only thing," Hagen said. "It's not a bad disease. It's not leukemia."
Hagen's ability to be an ordinary kid in one moment and a thrilling artist in the next is something his friends have come to accept.
"When we hang out, it's just normal," said William Adams, 17, whose friendship with Hagen was cemented on the baseball diamonds of their shared childhood. "We play basketball or Xbox. Then he'll call to see if I want to come to a recital, and he'll play some amazing concerto.
"He played one day for an assembly at East, and it kind of blew everyone's minds," Adams said. "Looking at him, I don't think anyone would expect him to be the musical type."
Hagen appears to be negotiating the tricky transition from child prodigy to adult artist with unusual grace, but Adams knows the social impacts are a challenge for his friend.
"That is the one thing that is pretty hard for him -- figuring out how to deal with being a teenager, and fitting in with all our friends when he has this amazing talent and opportunity," Adams said. "But he handles it really well."
Hagen keeps things in perspective by remembering that he's the one who chose this path and knowing that when he plays Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 this weekend, he's not competing with any other aspiring artist.
"I want to be a touring soloist," Hagen said. "I've always wanted to be one, since about the age of 4 when I started the violin. I don't think much about how hard it's going to be, I just work hard every day to make my Bruch the best I can make it, and I don't think about anyone else's and whether it's better."
Matson declined to guess about chances for a lasting career in the music business, but he approves of the direction Hagen is taking.
"Right now," he said, "it's all about Will, and the violin and the music, and what that chemistry provides."
"Hagen has impressive technique on notable display ... and presence, and an unusual depth for one his age."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, May 31, 2009
"William Hagen, a 16-year-old violinist, wove his way through the finale of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto with apparent ease, lacking only the tonal heft that will surely come to him as he continues to grow as a musician."
The Buffalo News, March 16, 2009
"In the Bruch Violin Concerto, William Hagen displayed a warm and pleasant tone and a confident mastery of the intricate finger work, which all came together well in the ripe and bouncing finale."
Albany Times Union, Jan. 21, 2009
About Hagen's 2006 appearance on at the Deer Valley Music festival: "The charming prodigy played with the heart of a poet, creating elegant, lyrical phrases and spine-tingling tones."
The Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 7, 2006
Guest conductor Christopher Seaman leads the Utah Symphony in Elgar's Symphony No. 2 and Wagner's Prelude to "Die Meistersinger." Will Hagen, a 17-year-old violinist from Salt Lake City, is the soloist in Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1.
When » March 26 and 27 at 8 p.m.
Where » Abravanel Hall, 123 W. South Temple, Salt Lake City.