Gil Shaham Champions the Violin Concerto
“Making music with The Cleveland Orchestra is like playing basketball with the Miami Heat,” world-renowned violinist Gil Shaham observes in a recent phone interview. “I’m there and I try to keep up with the rest of the group,” he explains. “It’s as good as it gets.” Founded in 1918, The Cleveland Orchestra may not have won any championships, but is widely regarded as one of the top five orchestras in the United States. This weekend, Shaham will be the soloist for the Korngold violin concerto, conducted by the orchestra’s music director Franz Wälser-Möst, in a program that will also feature fellow Austrians Schubert and Strauss. In 1971, Israeli astrophycisist Jacob Shaham and his wife, cytogeneticist Meira Diskin, were on an academic fellowship at the University of Illinois in Urbana when their son Gil was born. Shaham has played the Korngold violin concerto since his teens. His 1994 recording is unparalleled. Korngold’s music is lush, as if the composer were trying to drown the listener in his sound. Shaham’s playing is like rain: It soothes, cleanses, and generates life. But Korngold’s work has not always been appreciated. “In the beginning conductors and orchestras refused to play it,” Shaham points out. “Marketing departments said they couldn’t sell tickets to Korngold.” Erich Wolfgang Korngold was an Austro-Hungarian composer who later became a U.S. citizen. Due to his accidental, but highly successful career as a film composer, he was, and to some extent still is, a victim of high-brow classical music snobbery. However, those same snobs approve of his violin concerto, calling it a “serious” piece — even though it is built on the themes of three of his film scores. Korngold left Vienna for Hollywood when he was asked by Warner Brothers to write the musical score for the film The Adventures of Robin Hood starring Errol Flynn in 1938. Later he realized that score had saved him from Hitler’s death camps. As a bonus, it made him the first composer awarded an Academy Award for Best Original score, an award previously given to the head of the studio music department. Korngold wrote his violin concerto in 1945, after he retired from film composing. Legendary violinist Jascha Heifetz premiered the piece in St. Louis, reportedly receiving the most resounding ovation that city has ever seen. Yet after Heifetz, Korngold’s most popular piece was forgotten. “All of a sudden came this Korngold revival,” boasts Shaham. Korngold came back into vogue in the 1990s, not coincidentally soon after Shaham released his recording of the violin concerto, though he is too modest to acknowledge any connection. “I would offer to play his concerto and would get responses like: ‘No, we can’t play it because we just played it last week.’ It’s wonderful that his music has come back into the repertoire.” Shaham has a voracious appetite for concertos. Last October, he premiered Chinese-American composer Bright Sheng’s violin concerto with the Detroit Symphony under Leonard Slatkin. The piece is dedicated to Shaham, and inspired in part by folk songs of the mountainous southern region of China. “People make love to these songs over the mountain peaks,” Shaham says. “One partner would sing a verse across a peak and the other partner would respond.” For the past four years, Shaham has shared his love through an ongoing project performing violin concertos written in the 1930s. He plans to issue live recordings of these concertos in a few months on his own label, Canary Classics. “It is curious that so many composers wrote concertos for the violin in that decade,” Shaham muses. Not just any composers, Stravinsky, Bartok, Prokofiev, Britten, Berg, Schoenberg, Barber, and Hindemith, to name but a few. “Maybe it’s true that music has a way of capturing a time,” reflects Shaham. “If you look through this lens, this strange prism of violin concertos, maybe you can see something.” Gil Shaham performs Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Violin Concerto with The Cleveland Orchestra on Fri., Jan. 24 and Sat., Jan. 25, at 8:00 pm in the Knight Concert Hall of the Arsht Center for the Performing Arts, 1300 Biscayne Blv.d, Miami. The program will include Franz Schubert’s Symphony No.2 and waltzes and polkas by Josef and Johann Strauss Jr. For tickets go to www.arshtcenter.org.