Taking the Cynicism out of Symphony

Boston Symphony Orchestra featuring soloist Gil Shaham at Symphony Hall October 4

If ease, as author Annie Dillard once wrote, is the way of perfection, violinist Gil Shaham may be the classical music world's most polished performer. By the end of his performance with the Boston Symphny Orchestra Saturday night, he had convinced the rapt audience at Symphony Hall that Mendelssohn violin concertos simply grew out of his gleaming Stradivarius without effort, toil or even a few hours' practice.

Granted, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E minor is one of the most popular and playable concertos in the violin repertoire. Upon the advice of the violinist for whom he wrote the concerto, Mendelssohn avoided difficult technical writing, not because it would make the piece inaccessible, but because it was not essential to the piece's form. Nothing, in fact, is superfluous to the concerto's form. Critics called this straightforward style innovative and even revolutionary in the then-stagnant concerto repertoire.

The Mendelssohn concerto is standard concert material simply because it is good, not because consummate performers like Gil Shaham like to play it. Shaham's masterful performance on Saturday night, though, drew out the piece's best qualities. Shaham began the violin solo with a rich, elegaic tone, bringing depth without melodrama to the tragic melody. He continued with a flexible tone that was glittering in his sublime upper register and lusty and rich in the low, and an impressive dynamic range that challenged the orchestra to match him.

Shaham's treatment of the first movement cadenza was precise, relaxed and completely effective. Unlike most cadenzas which depart from the main theme to highlight the performer's virtuosity, Mendelssohn's provides the development that leads the movement to its end. The orchestra drew momentum from Shaham's graceful interpretation. It is difficult to say, however, whether it was this passion or sheer accident that caused conductor Seiji Ozawa to throw his baton into the cello section shortly before the end of the movement. The piece was nonetheless otherwise seamless (and an obliging cellist returned Ozawa's baton shortly after it landed at his feet).

The third movement is probably the best known part of the concerto. Like the first, it begins on a sorrowful note that quickly changes to embrace a triumphant mood. The whimsical theme carried by the violin and the flutes is probably among the concerto's most difficult passages, and both Shaham and the woodwinds carried it off with carefree finesse.


The 26-year-old star demonstrated an obviously spontaneous enthusiasm for the music and a confidence that was mercifully free of arrogance, as well as a thoroughly energizing dynamic with Ozawa. An exultant audience gave Shaham and the orchestra an immediate and well-deserved standing ovation and four curtain calls at the conclusion of the concerto.

The mood of triumphant brightness in Symphony Hall quickly changed at the start of Anton Bruckner's brooding Ninth Symphony, which comprised the second half of the concert. An ominous and disturbing work, it swings violently from melancholy introspection to frenzied passages which verge on hysteria. Bruckner started writing this Symphony during what was probably the lowest ebb of his confidence in his own work. The publisher who had promoted and loved his tremendously successful Seventh Symphony had recently told Bruckner that his Eighth Symphony was incomprehensible. After this criticism, Bruckner spent most of his time trying to revise his older works and make them more accessible to audiences--when not working on the Ninth. He became so obsessed with trying to refine his other compositions that he did not finish the symphony. However, his voluminous sketches for the piece indicate his extreme interest in it, and many critics say it would have been his greatest work.

The first two movements are dark and nightmarish. Moments of lightness only parody true happiness, and do little to dispel the deep anxiety that pervades this entire section. Strong rhythmic chords in the second movement must almost certainly have influenced Gustav Holst's "Mars" in the Planets suite.

A haunting unison violin theme opens the surprising third movement. It is rare--and disarming--to hear so many violins play without accompaniment; the effect is unforgettable. Triumphant moments are genuine, as if Bruckner had finally broken out of his pervasive bad mood. A soothing calm wells up at the end of the piece, which ends almost imperceptibly. One can only imagine that the fourth movement would have united the disparate themes and expressed his final resolution.

This challenging piece showcased Maestro Ozawa's brilliant and lyric conducting. Presiding over the orchestra with brooding intensity, he seemed to embody the melancholy and passionate spirit of the symphony itself. That the orchestra responded so thoroughly to Ozawa's often extreme demands only further attests to his effectiveness as a conductor.

A concert like this one--emotionally exhausting yet triumphant in its utter sincerity--heals a concertgoer's cynicism. It reminds one that going to Symphony is more than pomp and pretension, that performance is an act of liberation and that great music still lies at its center.

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