Check it out
Who: Violinist Gil Shaham
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 1
Where: Jackson Hall, Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: Starting at $50 general, $25 for UC Davis students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787
Violinist Gil Shaham returns to the Mondavi Center’s Jackson Hall on Friday, Nov. 1, at 8 p.m. for a solo recital featuring three works by J.S. Bach and the recent Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin by American composer William Bolcom, who will speak at the 7 p.m. pre-concert talk.
Shaham is no stranger to Davis — he appeared as soloist with the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas in 2006 (the Violin Concerto of American composer William Schuman, 1947-58), and with the St. Louis Symphony in 2011 (the Violin Concerto No. 2 of Soviet/Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev, 1935).
Shaham’s professional career began before he entered his teens, appearing in 1981 as a young soloist with the Jerusalem Symphony, and the Israel Philharmonic. His career got a big boost in 1989, when Shaham, still in his late teens, was summoned on short notice to perform the Bruch and Sibelius concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Thomas, earning favorable reviews.
Shaham’s first album came out the following year, and he quickly established a reputation as a concerto specialist, recording concertos by Paganini, Wieniawski, Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Sibelius, Prokofiev, Bartók, Elgar and Barber, working with major orchestras around the world.
Shaham, who has matured from a “boy wonder” prodigy into a 42-year-old father of three children, continues to have a jet-set calendar — he will appear in November with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Atlanta Symphony. Then he has multiple engagements in early 2014 performing the Korngold Violin Concerto with the Houston Symphony, the Orchestre de Paris and the Vienna Philharmonic.
But scanning through Shaham’s discography, you don’t find much Baroque music, with the exception of the Vivaldi “Four Seasons,” which almost every star violinist records. This isn’t for lack of familiarity: “When I was growing up, I studied my Bach, it was part of a regular upbringing,” Shaham told The Enterprise in a recent phone interview. “But when I started performing, I was always — I’m not sure what the right word is — perhaps ‘wary.’
“But I heard from so many musicians, ‘There is no greater joy than playing Bach.’ For instance, I remember seeing (pianist) Andras Schiff talk about Bach, and his eyes brightened up, and he said playing Bach is ‘the most wonderful thing.’
“And I think it’s true,” Shaham continued. “I started making a conscious effort to play Bach several years ago, particularly the solo works. I believe these pieces were very special to Bach himself.”
Much of Bach’s choral music was written for the church, and while Bach’s solo violin works are not overtly sacred, many listeners find them deeply spiritual.
“I remember Nathan Milstein (the Russian violinist, 1904-1992) used to get very passionate and say, ‘This is not religious music,’ but I also remember Leonard Bernstein saying, ‘This is music of faith, just listen to it!’ I find questions of faith are never far behind when you hear this music,” Shaham said.
His Davis program includes Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G minor (BWV 1001), Partita No. 1 in B minor (BWV 1002) and Partita No. 3 in E Major (BWV 1006).
When composer Bolcom was commissioned a few years ago to write a new piece for Shaham, Bach’s name came up early in their conversations about the direction that the music might take.
“Perhaps there is no more personal writing for violin than a solo piece,” Bolcom said in his program note for his Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin, which was completed last year. “Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach wrote of his father’s compelling violin playing, evidenced by the transcendent J.S. Bach solo sonatas and partitas.” So performing the Bolcom suite together with Bach’s music for solo violin is a natural choice.
Bolcom’s Suite No. 2 is a set of nine short movements — “and they are miniatures, not a suite of dances” like some of Bach’s suites, Shaham explained.
“What I love about the piece is that he teaches me about the violin,” Shaham said. “His genius is that he understands the instrument so well. He has a movement, ‘Dancing In Place,’ in which you hold an open string, and you just hit the finger on the string, a technique that guitarists use. And your fingers are dancing in place. It fits the piece.”
The suite also includes a movement titled “Northern Nigun,” based on a form of Jewish religious singing. And there’s a movement titled “Lenny in Spats,” which Shaham described as “a very short tribute to Leonard Bernstein, which is all in harmonics covering the range of the violin from very low notes to the very high stratosphere.”
The Bolcom suite covers so much musical territory that Shaham suggested “it’s a little bit like a tasting menu and a tour de force of all of Bill’s compositional styles; the variety is unbelievable.”
Bolcom, who was born in 1938, is one of the distinguished elders of American music, having received a Pulitzer Prize for Music, the National Medal of Arts and two Grammy Awards, among other recognitions. He was named 2007 Composer of the Year by the magazine Musical America; he has written operas, symphonies, chamber music and more.
His most popular tune is probably “Graceful Ghost,” a piano rag that is often played as an encore number by violinists as well.
Tickets start at $50 general, $25 for UC Davis students, and are available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.