Gil Shaham's “Violin Concertos of the 1930s” enters its third season

Shaham’s ongoing “Violin Concertos of the 1930s” project was conceived when, as the Los Angeles Times describes, “one of the era’s star fiddlers, Shaham began musing about his favorite 20th-century violin concertos at the turn of the millennium. He found to his surprise that most were written in the 1930s.” In an in-depth feature on the enterprise, the Wall Street Journal explains,

“In the 1930s, horrific developments in Europe ultimately swept more than 50 countries into the most destructive global conflict ever known. Coincidentally during that decade, at least 14 significant composers wrote violin concertos, many for the first time.”

In some cases the tumultuous political events of the 1930s directly impacted the concertos’ composition, most notably that of Germany’s Karl Amadeus Hartmann, an idealist socialist whose Concerto funèbre was written in 1939 to protest Hitler’s occupation of Prague. According to the Aspen Times, the work is “an anguished cry from the depth of [the composer’s] soul, the violin an ideal vehicle for expressing its eloquence,” and Shaham’s account at the Aspen Music Festival this past summer was “as expressive as it was impeccably played.” In the coming season, the violinist gives four performances of the work with the New York Philharmonic in March 2012, and a further two with Munich’s Bavarian State Orchestra in June.

Barber’s Violin Concerto (1939) headlines Shaham’s collaborations with the Paris Orchestra in December 2011, and the Hong Kong Philharmonic and Virginia Symphony in January 2012. When he performed the concerto with the New York Philharmonic last spring, the New York Times praised his “rich-toned, gracefully shaped performance,” while at London’s BBC Proms, “there was joy in Barber’s Violin Concerto as Gil Shaham played it: spinning out its lyrical flights, his sound recalled Twenties Vienna, and the audience response confirmed how much-loved this sun-drenched work from Thirties America still is” (Independent).

In a review from 2009, Joshua Kosman of the San Francisco Chronicle advised festival programmers: “Get Gil Shaham to play the Berg Violin Concerto … Then relax - because whatever else may happen, you've got a hit on your hands.” Berg wrote his elegiac concerto in 1935, shortly before he died, to commemorate the death of Alma Mahler’s teenage daughter. For Shaham’s three dates with the New Jersey Symphony in April 2012, he will couple Berg’s Concerto with the world premiere of another work for solo violin and orchestra, also composed as a memorial: Richard Danielpour’s Kaddish, which honors the composer’s father. Shaham also performs the Berg with the Paris Orchestra in March.

For appearances with the Atlanta Symphony in April, and with Zurich’s Tonhalle-Orchester in May, Shaham turns to Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto of 1931, a great example of the legendary Russian’s neoclassical writing, which Balanchine would later use as the score for two ballets. Shaham’s rendition of the work reveals him to be “a consummate technician with an intense emotional side” (Cleveland Plain-Dealer).

Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, which dates from 1935, was directly inspired by Stravinsky’s. A longtime champion of the Prokofiev, Shaham recorded it with André Previn and the London Symphony Orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon, prompting this tribute from Gramophone magazine’s veteran music critic Rob Cowan:

“Devoted as I am to earlier interpreters..., I can honestly say that I have never encountered performances where soloist, orchestra, and conductor connect with such unerring intuition, where the music – rather than its superficial display potential – is treated so naturally. … An excellent CD.”

Shaham returns to the work for two performances with the New World Symphony in February.

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