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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, January 14, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 02
Violinist Shaham makes Bartók unforgettable
Arts & Entertainment
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Violinist Shaham makes Bartók unforgettable

by Rod Parke - SGN A&E Writer

Violinist Gil Shaham
with the Seattle Symphony
January 8
Benaroya Hall


I wouldn't miss a chance to see violinist Gil Shaham play most anything. That he was to play Bartók's 'Violin Concerto No. 2' with the Seattle Symphony promised a special opportunity to hear a rarely heard masterpiece in a performance not likely to be surpassed in our lifetime.

The evening began with Bright Sheng's 'Shanghai Overture,' a piece of moderate interest that did not over-stay its welcome. As with most of Sheng's work that I have heard (Conductor Schwarz is a champion of this composer.), the huge orchestra is used mostly in big, messy splashes of sound. You see lots of players working very hard, only to be drowned out by too many other players working just as hard. Okay, I admit it: One of my pet peeves is that so many contemporary composers whose music Schwarz chooses to showcase over-orchestrate most everything.

I did rather enjoy the Sheng piece, partly because I love noise, and the percussion section alone made a whole lot of it! As the program notes pointed out, most of the work is loud. Fortunately, the noise changed often enough to avoid boredom. And then it ended soon enough.

Then along came Bartók to show us how to orchestrate with powerful effect. Béla Bartók's 'Violin Concerto No. 2' is a fascinating, passionate, and powerful work from beginning to end. If Beethoven's only violin concerto can be criticized for not being particularly violinistic, no one could level that remark at the Bartók! This composer shows in all his works a supreme mastery of string writing, and this concerto gives the violinist a glorious example of how much Bartók knew about what the instrument could do. No other instrument could work this kind of magic.

I cannot imagine any player who could best Gil Shaham in this work. He simply reveled in its challenges, of which there are many. Shaham is an athletic violinist; his whole body coiled and sprung with the energy of the piece. He covered more stage landscape than most soloists, yet none of this seemed anything other than glee in the intensity of the music. He clearly loved this music, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

While the first movement was full of dissonance and dramatic storming, the remaining movements were essentially lyrical and often beautiful, playful, and joyous. The final 'Allegro Molto' gave Shaham terrific opportunity to push virtuosity to its astounding limits. It doesn't get much more fun than this! Too bad that there were so many empty seats; we did not get the Bach encore that he shared with the Thursday night audience.

The second half began with a very short piece, Gunther Schuller's 'Bagatelle: With Swing.' It was commissioned in honor of Gerard Schwarz's farewell season as music director. A big orchestra can only suggest a jazzy feeling, never really approaching the intensity of a small ensemble jazz group. This the players did with mildly interesting results.

Alexander Borodin's 'Symphony No. 1,' while not as compelling or dramatic as his second symphony, was nonetheless a charming and enjoyable work. Gerard Schwarz led a performance that was nuanced and full of life. I can't say I would go out of my way to hear it again, but I appreciated a chance to hear an excellent work that doesn't get played often.

Reviewer Rod Parke can be reached at rmp62@columbia.edu.

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