Virtuoso Shaham Astounds Adoring Audience
At Jordan Hall, New England
Whoever thought The Weather Channel would be a place to find culture?
A few years back the innocuous if slightly disturbing cable TV network made classical music headlines when it began to accompany its scrolling local weather reports with recordings of young violin virtuoso Gil Shaham and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra performing Vivaldi's Four Seasons. Sales for the CD and for classical music in general skyrocketed, and Shaham rose to megastar status on the tide of his impeccable, resonant, almost glowing violin playing. At that time, however, Shaham was already a well-respected figure in the music world, having debuted at the age of 10 with the Jerusalem Symphony, attended Juilliard after graduating from the Horace Mann School in New York City, won a Grammy Award in 1985 and, in a stunt that assures him a place in music history, replaced fellow virtuoso Itzhak Perlman in a London Symphony Orchestra performance given 24 hours notice.
Gil Shaham is now recognized as a consummate virtuoso the world over, and his recital last Friday (as part of BankBoston's 60th Annual Celebrity Series Concert Series) proved to a packed audience at New England Conservatory's Jordan Hall why this is the case.
At first, however, the signs seemed to point elsewhere. Opening with Sonata No. 3 in E Major by J.S. Bach, Shaham was quick to highlight his remarkably fluid sense of a musical line and his impressive control of dynamics and tempo. However, the work was fairly unimpressive as an opening to a virtuoso's concert, and Shaham often failed to infuse the more lyrical sections with enough musical vitality and frequently attacked the quieter parts too aggressively. On a positive note, the choice of an early work did reflect the rest of the programs excellent selection of music from all genres and time periods.
Things began to look up after the Bach with the Boston premiere of composer-conductor Andre Previn's Sonata Vineyard, named so because it was composed just after Previn and his wife bought a home on Martha's Vineyard in 1994. The sonata is a turbulent, impassioned work that seems almost schizophrenic in its frenetic metric upheaval, alternation of fast and slow and its jagged leaping between notes, and thus the overly-vigorous attacks that seemed so out of place in Bach seem most appropriate here. The piece obviously requires the attentions of a virtuoso, and Shaham was up to the task, flawlessly tossing off harmonics, contorted chords, astronomically high melodies and endless strings of fast-paced arpeggios. The piece is interesting in that the final raucous section marked "Fast and Brilliant" also highlights the piano, and at Friday's concert Akira Eguchi, a well-known accompanist and performer in his own right, also rose to the occasion, fulfilling effortlessly his much under-appreciated role.
Having proven his musical abilities in these first two very different, all-encompassing works, Shaham was ready after the intermission to really let loose his virtuostic pyrotechnics and have a great time doing it. Aaron Copland's Ukelele Serenade, was the first clue that the remainder of the concert was going to be a wild ride. Heavily jazz- and blues-influenced, the piece gets off to a rollicking start with slip-sliding chromatic passages in both violin and piano parts, which Shaham and Eguchi both tackled with characteristic aplomb and finesse. This explosive opening segues into the actual "serenade," which sounds like a hoe-down gone completely wrong. The violin and piano take turns mimicking a twanging ukelele and tossing around a tipsy but surprisingly lyrical melody; different time signature are played simultaneously to produce hilarious results; after this the introduction is repeated and the piece comes crashing to a close. Here what shined through in Shaham's playing was his love of music, his ability to capture the fun-loving spirit of the music: rocking back and forth on his heels in time to the honky-tonk rhythms of the piece, smiling as he cheekily "strummed" his violin to mimic the drunken ukelele player, Shaham clearly showed he was having a great time.
Shaham's fun-loving energy carried over into the next piece on the program, an arrangement by the violinist Vasa Prihoda of the waltzes from Richard Strauss's opera Der Rosenkavalier. The waltzes of Richard Strauss (better known as the "Waltz King" and composer of the famous Blue Danube Waltz) are always lush, sweeping and charmingly Romantic--an appropriately opulent depiction of turn-of-the-century Vienna. The problem in this piece was depicting the full orchestral grandeur of such a work with only an accompanied violin--a problem Gil Shaham easily overcame. His delivery of the waltzes was delightfully graceful and humorous, striking a perfect balance in all aspects of his playing--technical, lyrical, and otherwise.
A Fantasy on Bizet's Carmen brought the concert to a triumphant close. The sultry melodies and sensual Spanish rhythms of Bizet's opera Carmen have led many composers to excerpt various dances and songs from the work. The flamboyant style of the melodies have made the work especially attractive to composers looking for virtuoso showpieces, and for no instrument has the opera been more metamorphosized in this manner than the violin. Pablo de Sarasota's Carmen Fantasy is probably the most famous, but there are also violin works by the German composer Franz Taxman and the Hungarian Jennie Hubby. Friday's concert marked a first in that Sham excerpted the most difficult parts from each of these three pieces and created one magnificent virtuoso showpiece.
And indeed the work was all it promised to be. A technically immaculate, lyrically impeccable, utterly dazzling spectacle, it was a truly astounding pyrotechnic display, a delicious frenzy of vibrant melodies, pizzicati flurries of fast notes, vigorous chords, and just general virtuostic brilliance. Gil Shaham was obviously in his element, a consummate performer to the very end. On top of that, he tossed it off exuberantly, making it all look completely effortless and fun-that litmus test of true performance magic.
Such a performance obviously garners an encore, and the audience actually brought Shaham back for two--one, a joyfully exaggerated rendition of Rossini's The Barber of Seville (think "Fi-ga-ro!"), the other a surprisingly sedate charmer (arranged by one of the most famous of all violin virtuosi, Fritz Kreisler) entitled The Waltzing Dog--both showing Shaham's ever-present humor. All in all Gil Shaham is truly to be congratulated for a successful glimpse at the world of the virtuoso.