Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bowing the winter blues away with Gil Shaham

The intrepid Gil Shaham braved winter's worst last weekend.

Neither rain nor snow nor gloom of night stayed violinist Gil Shaham from the completion of his appointed Celebrity Series concert last Sunday, which went forward in the face of two feet of fresh snow and nearly gale force winds, which together left Jordan Hall half empty for his performance. Which is too bad, of course - but to tell true, for those who did brave the Blizzard of '13, it meant the concert seemed to glow with an intimate coziness and warmth.  Let Nemo roar all he wanted - we were going to be listening to Schubert and Bach instead!

The atmosphere was helped enormously by the fact that the virtuosic Mr. Shaham all but beams with his own sweet charisma, and that he was joined on stage by the composers of two of the pieces he played - rising star Avner Dorman, and elder statesman William Bolcom, who was there with his wife and, of course, performance partner, the delightful mezzo Joan Morris.  (In one of the touches that made this concert so very memorable, Bolcom took to the piano to play "Happy Birthday" to Ms. Morris - it was her 70th - as all of Jordan Hall sang along.)

But back to Schubert and Bach, who filled out the first half of the program quite beautifully; indeed, the opening Schubert Sonatina in A minor for Violin and Piano (D. 385) proved the highlight of the afternoon.  This work dates from Schubert's nineteenth year, and from one of the most furious cascades of musical productivity any composer has ever achieved (in the space of two years Schubert completed four symphonies, three masses, five musical dramas, three string quartets, three violin sonatas, and over 300 songs).  

The sonatas (it was the printer Diabelli who re-named them "sonatinas") are, I suppose, only small splashes in this musical torrent; but they are nevertheless charming in a surprisingly mature manner - and though not technically too demanding, they're still subtle and complex.  And with the help of pianist Akira Eguchi - who displayed such musical sensitivity that I longed to hear him as a soloist - Shaham sculpted an utterly beguiling Schubertian landscape, often daring a kind of hushed delicacy that induced the entire hall to lean forward; you could all but hear the hissing pressure of Shaham's bow on his instrument (the "Countess Polignac" Stradivarius, btw, produced right at the cusp of the "golden period" of Strads).

From minor Schubert Shaham turned to major Bach, and a piece that's at the core of the solo violin repertoire - the Partita No. 3 in E Major (BWV 1006) - even if you don't know Bach, you know the melody of its "Gavotte en Rondeau."  I was less happy with this than I had been with the Schubert, however - for it seemed Shaham was determined to treat it largely as a showpiece, and what was on show was his remarkable speed.  Actually, right at the top he spun out of control in an awkward false start.  That didn't slow him down, though - he tore through the opening "Preludio" at a breakneck pace - yes, I know, it's entirely sixteenth notes, but its speed should serve its sense of musical flight, not become an end in itself.  Shaham did slow down (a bit) for the dances that followed - which allowed him more expressive elbow room, as it were; but surprisingly it was the closing bourĂ©e and gigue that came off best (rather than the more famous gavotte).

After intermission, Shaham led with a new suite for solo violin from Bolcom, which proved to be a series of light divertissements only very lightly connected (and held together by book-ending, meditative movements called "Morning Music" and "Evening Music").  The highlight of these was probably "Lenny in Spats," a bow to Bernstein which brought Bolcom's sly syncopations up into the stratosphere of the instrument (where Shaham was completely comfortable).  There were other intriguing moments in a rather jagged "Barcarolle" and a furious little "Tarantella," but in the end these different tangents didn't seem to be incorporated into any major over-arching statement; nor would I claim this was major Bolcom - perhaps it merely summed up the random musings that had occupied him between dawn and dusk of a single day.  But at least it demonstrated that this grand old man of the American scene still has his witty musical smarts.  

And if the Bolcom felt a little light, the newly-commissioned works that came next felt practically paper-thin. I was somewhat taken with the post-romantic atmospherics of Julian Milone's In the Country of Lost Things . . ., but couldn't really tell you what all the composer's musical quotes and references were meant to add up to; likewise Dorman's Nigunim (Violin Sonata No. 3) felt like far too many millennial world-music surveys these days - it seemed designed to tease some quirky new timbres from familiar material, and that's all (although admittedly Dorman won over the crowd with showy runs and a few crashing climaxes for pianist Eguchi).  By now I was a bit worried that perhaps Shaham and his pianist were only show-boating, albeit in a sweetly modest way; but all was forgiven when Bolcom took the stage again at the curtain call, and pounded out his classic "Graceful Ghost Rag" on the ivories while Shaham played a poignantly lilting accompaniment.  Because basically, once you've heard William Bolcom himself play the "Graceful Ghost Rag," you can die happy.

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