Concert Review: Gil Shaham and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra

Contrapuntist and I had the opportunity to attend the Saturday, October 23 performance of Gil Shaham as conductor/soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. I first saw Shaham about 15 years ago, near the start of his career, on Ravinia’s Rising Star series. At the time, I was struck by the expression of pure joy on his face and the radiant warmth of his performance. I’ve gone to several of his performances since then, and it’s wonderful to see that he’s maintained his enthusiasm throughout the years.

Shaham gave guidance to the pared-down orchestra at the beginning of each piece by indicating character and tempo. Beyond that, the performers worked together as chamber players rather than conductor and orchestra. Although there were occasional ensemble problems, the chamber music spirit seems to have resulted in a heightened sense of awareness from the orchestra. They seemed receptive to Shaham’s leadership, and this was the first time I’ve ever seen the conductor hug the concertmaster at the end of each piece.

The concert opened with Haydn’s Violin Concerto No. 4 in G Major. In comparison to what would come later, Shaham’s performance seemed restrained. However, the second movement showcased Shaham’s liquid gold tone. There was a striking moment before the start of the cadenza during which Shaham’s exquisite sense of timing caused the audience to collectively hold its breath.

The next piece was Hartmann’s Concerto funebre for Solo Violin and String Orchestra, composed shortly after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia. Shaham and the CSO did a wonderful job of interpreting the heart-wrenching music. The beginning and end of the piece are framed by chorales which, according to Hartmann, “were meant to support and encourage the concept of intellectualism, which at the time was facing a future without hope.” Shaham began the piece with a veiled sound and led the orchestra through the first movement’s harmonically dissonant chorale.  The frenzied third movement found Shaham expertly negotiating treacherous intervallic runs. Since he only has two hands, and they were both occupied by the violin, the orchestra was left to fend for themselves. It was great fun to see the principal players’ passionate leadership of their sections

After the intermission, the orchestra performed Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings while Shaham took a well-deserved break. This slow piece could also be described as a chorale and has even been performed by vocal ensembles. I found it an interesting programming choice, given the stylistic resemblance to the first and final movements of the Hartmann Concerto. The performance was nice, although there was nothing innovative about the interpretation.

Shaham performed with the most freedom during the final piece of the evening, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A Major, K. 219. The first movement was appropriately impish. The second movement was spellbinding. Shaham phrased as naturally as if he were breathing and tenderly cupped his hand over his heart during several of the orchestral sections. His natural enthusiasm burst to the forefront during the third movement’s rambunctious Turkish section.

Unfortunately, Shaham has not yet made a recording of either the Hartmann or the Mozart. However, he recently recorded the Haydn G Major Violin Concerto with the Sejong Soloists (click here for an Amazon link).

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