Gil Shaham looks forward to revisiting Korngold with Cleveland Orchestra

By Eric C. Simpson

Gil Shaham performs the Korngold Violin Concerto this weekend with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Arsht Center. Photo: Luke Ratray

Gil Shaham performs the Korngold Violin Concerto this weekend with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Arsht Center. Photo: Luke Ratray

When violinist Gil Shaham performs with the Cleveland Orchestra at the Arsht Center this weekend, he’ll be revisiting a piece that’s been near the top of his favorite repertory for a long time.

He first learned the Korngold Violin Concerto at age 16 at the request of conductor Yuri Ahranovitch, when Shaham was “young and up for anything.” Though the concert with Ahranovitch didn’t happen, Shaham has been in love with the piece ever since. In 1994, when he was the freshest face on the classical music scene, he released a recording of the concerto on the Deutsche Grammophon label, to critical acclaim.

Twenty years later, Shaham is among the world’s most respected violinists, though he’s had to navigate the transition from wunderkind to established concert veteran. “It took a little bit of adjusting when I started playing with orchestras that are mostly younger than I, with conductors that are really much younger than I,” he said. “I’ve had several invitations to play with youth orchestras, so I’m officially on the other side of the hill, but it’s exciting to be here, to be in midlife crisis. I feel like I can look back with some experience, and make slightly more informed choices.”

That extra experience has helped Shaham keep a fresh relationship with a concerto that has been a major part of his repertoire for so long. “I think this is one of those pieces that the more time I spend with it, the more I love it,” he said. “When you have a great masterpiece—I’ve always used the example of a great sculpture—you can look at it from millions of different angles; you see something different from each one, or learn something different from each one.”

Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a child prodigy in Vienna, with many works enjoying a worldwide reputation including his opera Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), written at age 22, which enjoyed enormous international success in the 1920s. Like many Jewish musicians and artists, the Austrian composer fled Europe with the rise of the Nazis and established himself in Hollywood as a composer for Warner Brothers, where he found new success with his film scores, winning an Academy Award for his music for The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Korngold’s Violin Concerto, completed in 1945, draws on material from his film work, including music from Anthony Adverse, Another Dawn and The Prince and the Pauper. Though violinist Bronislaw Huberman persuaded Korngold to write the concerto it was Jascha Heifetz who gave the premiere in 1947 with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.

“[Korngold] was already in his prime when he wrote this piece and the mastery is incredible,” says Shaham. “The first movement melody just alternates between duple and triple time. One bar is three-four, the next bar is four-four, and then three-four, and two-four, and he does it completely seamlessly and naturally,” Shaham said. “And the second movement is an Oscar-winning movement.”

Shaham’s most recent CD is a set of Hebrew melodies that he recorded with his pianist sister Orli Shaham, with whom he has collaborated many times in the past. “Two or three years ago we did a couple of programs of—I guess you would call it concert music based on Jewish folk tradition. There was a movement of composers that formed a society in St. Petersburg and throughout Eastern Europe around 1900. And their goal was to do for Jewish folk music, for Jewish folk tradition, what Grieg had done for Norwegian folk music, or what Smetana had done for Czech music, or what Glinka had done for Russian music,” he said.

“And so in these programs we included music from that original group, but then throughout the twentieth century there were other composers who devoted themselves to writing music based on Jewish modes or Jewish sounds.”

Their new disc includes pieces by Joseph Achron, Ernst Bloch, and Leo Zeitlin, as well as selections from John Williams’s score to Schindler’s List and a new sonata by Avner Dorman, Nigunim, from which the album takes its name. Listed as Dorman’s Violin Sonata no. 3, Nigunim was a co-commission with New York’s 92nd Street Y, where it received its premiere in 2011. “When we played it we were hooked on it immediately, and when we played it for audiences, people seemed to respond to it as well.”

Connecting audiences with unfamiliar music is part of what Shaham hopes to accomplish when he performs the Korngold concerto in Miami this weekend. Though beloved by violinists, it has never achieved quite the same level of renown as, for instance, Samuel Barber’s Violin Concerto, which was composed only six years earlier. “I think it’s so exciting to hear a great piece of music for the first time, or to discover new works. And for us to be the ones to play it for anybody—it’s a great honor.”

He’ll be joining the Cleveland Orchestra and Franz Welser-Möst as they open their annual Miami residency, and to Shaham, Cleveland seems an ideal partner for this particular piece. “I’m really excited to do this Korngold with them and with Maestro Welser-Möst,” he said. “Of course Korngold’s material was written for the movies, but his voice somehow always came from Vienna. He really had a real Viennese voice, and I think with an orchestra that has that middle European culture, and with Franz Welser-Möst, with his Austrian tradition, I hope that we can relax and really do something nice with it.”

“I feel that to play with an orchestra like this, I just consider myself very, very lucky. It’s like playing with a team in the NBA,” Shaham said. “The Cleveland Orchestra is like the Miami Heat of orchestras.”

Gil Shaham performs the Korngold Violin Concerto 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday with Franz Welser-Möst and the Cleveland Orchestra at the Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, and January 27 at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples. The program also includes Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 and waltzes and polkas by Johann Strauss, Jr.

Eric C. Simpson is the Hilton Kramer Fellow at The New Criterion

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Tue Jan 21, 2014
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