Rain or Shine, Gil Shaham shines at Vail Valley Music Festival

It was a beautiful sunny day in Vail Colorado all day. However, as the evening closed in so did a light rain. With the remnants of a summer mountain rain drifting through the valley, the soft beginning of Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D Major filled the Gerald R Ford Amphitheater with an amazing sense of electricity. Charles Dutoit led the Philadelphia Orchestra in it's second night here at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival with Gil Shaham on solo violin. Together they produced a stunning performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, shining through the damp weather with adroit skill.

Charles Dutoit lead the orchestra through the tranquil beginning, then expertly pushed them forward, adding tension to even the softest sections with subtle movements. Gil Shaham as the featured soloist of the evening opened with strong double stops on the violin which eventually melted into the soft, sensitive melody. With a deft touch, Shaham caressed a gentle sweetness into the music, even in the rapid ascents. As the violin solo augments the melody carried by the strings, Shaham still carried the focus. His passion and intensity of his performance was evident in the sense of concentration of his entire body - even when he wasn't playing. Dutoit later kept the brass stabs present but under control, layering the various elements of the orchestra to create a sonic whole.

Often Shaham finished off sections of solo violin work with masterful flourished and a huge grin. His joy was infectious, as the entire orchestra seemed to play with his same intensity and love of the music. Not only is this a beautiful piece of music, but all the more enjoyable when listening to someone who obviously enjoys playing as much as Shaham does. The cadenza sections Shaham played were written by Fritz Kreisler. Shaham's fingers were amazing, playing with such speed and accuracy to more than just a solo or duet, but the sound of a chamber ensemble from one instrument. The audience was en-wrapped silence and awe. As the movement ended many in the audience applauded his skill; how anyone didn't applaud is beyond me.

In the second movement there were numerous moments, one with a duet of bassoon and the solo violin - gracefull and touching. Another part was when Dutoit brough the orchestra in so quietly the opening attack was inaudible, leaving the audience with the slow awareness of a growing sustain. Later, when the solo violin plays over the upper strings in pizzicato the control maintained by the orchestra allowed Shaham to play as softly as he wanted and still be heard clearly. Together the entire movement held a sense of beauty and anxiety perfectly balanced.

Eventually the piece became more florid, exciting and upbeat. Again, Shaham's grin spread from ear to ear and across the breadth of the entire audience. It was as if he were playing for his own enjoyment and we had the pleasure of just happening to be there. I am so very glad I was. It is unfortunate the weather kept the house (particular the lawn section) from being standing room only. This was a performance not to miss. In the end the standing applause called Gil Shaham and Charles Dutoit back twice. We were even treated to an encore performance of Bach's Partita in E major - and more standing applause.

The second half of the concert was of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5 in D minor. Considered the music that brought Shostakovich back into favor in Russia, it is also considered by some a symphony written to placate Lenin and the Soviet "cleansing" that was going on in the mid 1930's. While I am a huge fan of Shostakovich, there were elements of tonight's performance that more akin to the weather of the day than the earlier Beethoven piece.

In the opening movement there were a number of lovely solos, by the oboe, clarinet and flute. During each of these solos, Dutoit kept the orchestra in check ensuring each of the solo's appeared appropriately in the mix. However, there was a stronger section when the percussion (particularly the snare) was a bit heavy for the brass. However, Dutoit then lead the orchestra into a section of rich tonal color and complex motivic interweaving - maintaining the strength of each individual line and yet a sense of overall clarity in the music. Again, a softer section with a horn and flute duet showed the amazing musicianship within the Philadelphia orchestra. Other musicians of note were more solo moments by the clarinet, oboe and bassoon.

The second movements starts strong and determined with intense low strings. Then the horns get a chance to shine. However, as the orchestra attempted a transfer from heavy strings to a lighter section they seemed to struggle. The strong sections were good and powerful. The softer solo moments were beautiful, but the shift from on to the other were not as smooth as to be expected. Again, solos of note were the flute in a lovely dance and the bassoon. Then the strings got a chance to shine showing their skill with a pizzicato section offering extensive dynamic control. As the movement came to a close the transitions improved moving from dance to the dramatic with precision.

The flute and harp have a delicate duet in the third movement, eventually turning into a trio adding another flute - beautifully done! Initially the subtle shifts in the orchestra were imperceptible and yet ever present. However, at one point the 1st violin deck had the melody. In the open air amphitheater it was lost. Later, as they played a tremolo beneath woodwind solos there so subtle was too subtle, visible they were playing but impossible to hear with too stark a contrast with the soloist. The movement lost some of its beauty by trying to be too theatrical. The music is dramatic enough without needing to be overdone. Even the audience grew restless during the performance.

A strong opening in the final movement brought back the attention of the audience. Again, with more intense movement and stronger elements playing against each other, Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra found their way. The mix of multiple elements, string verse brass, upper parts against lower ones, were beautifully blended into a cohesive whole. A particularly exquisite moment was the horn solo over the upper strings. As the piece came to a close there are upper strings playing at full volume leading to a strong Brass fanfare. However, the strings were brought to such a fevered pitch early on there was no where for them to go, so the piece didn't build - but rather reached a point and plateaued. It was a good performance with lots of great solo moments, but not a strong over all showing for the orchestra - rather like a light rain at the end of a bright sunny day.

Tomorrow the weather is expected to be bright and sunny once again. With Yuja Wang on the piano joining the Philadelphia Orchestra for Prokofiev's Concerto No. 3 I suspect that even the darkest clouds could keep the sun from shinning on the Bravo! festival.


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