Tom Strini

Gil Shaham masters Walton’s Violin Concerto

By - Mar 12th, 2011 01:04 am
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Gil Shaham. Boyd Hagen photo courtesy of Harrison Parrott artist management.

William Walton‘s Violin Concerto is a fine piece, butsn’t played much. The reason was obvious Friday night, when Gil Shaham performed it with conductor Edo de Waart and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra: The violin part, in which Jascha Heifetz had a hand, is insane, a minefield of careening scales at breakneck speeds, lyrical lines that soar to the very top of the instrument, violent rhythms at high speed, and thickets of fast-moving multiple stops. Bumpy syncopations and nasty meter changes make the piece tough for the orchestra, too.

None of that bothered Shaham Friday night. He grinned and bobbed with the music, apparently having a ball, as he reeled off one astonishment after another. De Waart and the orchestra, equal partners at every turn, supported him assertively and precisely.

The concerto, a Heifetz commission from 1939, at least touches on traditional forms. But that’s not how I heard it. All three movements pass as contrasting episodes involving slower, more lyrical music on the one hand and wild dashes on the other. Sometimes, Walton writes in a bit of transition; more often, he suddenly cracks the whip to break the lyric spell and you’re off to the races. The melodic and harmonic stuff of these episodes relate to one another in various ways, but you don’t really perceive themes recurring and then developing and then recurring again, as you do with Beethoven or Brahms. (Walton’s way of never repeating anything intact has a lot to do with that.)  You the concerto as a series of passing, contrasting landscapes of two general, contrasting types.

I don’t know if Walton or Shaham had this in mind, but Friday night, some of the lyrical episodes came off as genuine Romantic ardor and others as overheated parody of same. Some of the fast passages, likewise, sounded like fury; others suggested chase scenes in cartoons. The impression was of music endowed not only with substantial emotional weight but also with sophisticated wit, with both aspects couched in the splashiest sort of violin virtuosity. Shaham sold all of this with great panache, an indispensable quality for any violinist who would take up the Walton concerto.

Frederick Delius‘ added The Walk to the Paradise Garden as an intermezzo to his opera Romeo-and-Juliet-themed opera for its second run. Like Walton’s concerto, Delius’s Paradise Garden has a fairly conventional arrangement of themes and formal structure that you don’t really hear. The principal melodies appear amid thickets of countermelody and often in the middle of the mix. We perceive them as dappled and obscured, but for sudden, spacious clearings in which they come into full, sunny view. Those moments are lovely. All nine minutes of Paradise Garden are lovely. De Waart saw to that by balancing the voices to demurely reveal, in lush, round tones, the essence of the music.

Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, more than most orchestral pieces, is conductor’s music. It must be shaped, coaxed, parsed and urged on to convey its drama. The instruments and lines represent characters, ideas, scenes and feelings, and de Waart made the notes give up their meaning. The MSO, hair-trigger but utterly controlled in its responses, gave itself up to the conductor and made every phrase mean something, in both purely musical and in programmatic terms. Glorious solos abounded — Martin Woltman, especially, stood out in the crucial English horn solos in the Adagio.

The soloists weren’t the only ones playing soloistically. The string sections, particularly the first violins, responded to de Waart’s subtle shadings with utterly taut ensemble and free-flowing expressivity. The Symphonie fantastique is conductor’s music, but everyone involved came together Friday to bring the piece to full Romantic bloom.

This program, given at Marcus Center Uihlein Hall, will be repeated at 8 p.m. Saturday, March 12. Tickets are $25-$95. (But you can find a 50% discount code here.)

Categories: Classical

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