Gil Shaham Plays with San Diego Symphony

Gil Shaham

By Kenneth Herman

A transcendent Beethoven Violin Concerto

Rarely do we hear a live performance that merits the term “definitive,” but I am willing to place this accolade on Gil Shaham’s exquisite account of Beethoven’s “Violin Concerto in D Minor” with the San Diego Symphony Friday (May 27) at Copley Symphony Hall. For his unrelenting resplendent tone, pinpoint focus, immaculate intonation and ardent but thoroughly refined phrasing, it would be difficult to exceed his 24-carat standard.

In place of the typical aggressive bravura most soloists brandish to impress their audience, Shaham consistently lowered his dynamic level, requiring maestro Jahja Ling and the orchestra to play more softly and the audience to tone down its nervous, ambient rustle to a hushed silence. Under such ideal conditions and the concentration of a full house, Shaham worked his magic.

Of course, magic is a rather frivolous term to toss around when the performance at hand refers to as demanding a work as the Beethoven “Violin Concerto.” Yet it is precisely because of Shaham’s ability to communicate his profound unstanding of every phrase through his astounding (and hard-won) technique that his listeners feel transported. It is no trick, but we find ourselves as amazed by his performance as the viewers of clever prestidigitation.

At age 40, it is easy to say that Shaham is at the top of his form, but it seems that he has always been in top form. I was not present when he made his acclaimed debut at 11 with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta, but I did hear him give a compelling Town Hall solo recital at 20, and his riviting performance of Bartók’s “Second Violin Concerto” with the Berlin Philharmonic under Mariss Jansons in September, 2000, still rings boldly in my memory.

Of the 20 A-list concert violinists from Bell and Chang to Zukerman, Shaham is the only one—at least to my ears—who keeps getting better. To appease the Copley Hall audience’s roaring ovation, Shaham offered a masterful consideration of the Prelude movement from J. S. Bach's “E Major Partita.”

Ling proved a highly considerate accompanist to Shaham, fine-tuning the orchestra’s dynamics to his and sympathetically matching his choice of tempos. Just in case Ling had any notions of going off on his own, the peripatetic soloist regularly sidled over to the edge of the conductor’s platform and played directly into Ling’s left ear. Melting duets between Principal Bassoon Valentin Martchev and Shaham in the middle movement and the minor-mode excursion of the Rondowere nothing short of heavenly, and the entire ensemble’s robust, well-balanced account of the finale crowned the work with apt glory.

Ending the orchestra’s vaunted centennial year with Beethoven’s “Fifth Symphony” no doubt looked good on paper, but like the stage director facing another “Hamlet” or a museum curator pondering yet another exhibition of Impressionist landscapes, the acute problem is bringing something new to an achingly familiar product. Ling opted for bracing tempos throughout, especially in the opening movement, a decision that taxed the players, who sounded driven and appeared always to play slightly behind Ling’s beat. Fortunately, the second movement, with its invocation of a grand processional capped by the trumpets’ fiery sheen, proved a happy exception to this vexing anomaly.

In a bid for even more drama, Ling avidly propeled the closing movement and pumped up its final cadences to the point where I expected fireworks to explode at any moment. The audience responded raucously, but having just heard the Los Angeles Philharmonic play Brahms in Disney Hall, I can only hope that Ling will develop greater precision and unity within every section of the San Diego orchestra so that he will not have to rely on such sleight of hand to make a winning musical impression.

Recently, the San Diego Symphony has been designated a “Tier One” orchestra by the League of American Orchestras, to be certain a ranking of note. I hope this orchestra will begin to sound more like a “Tier One” orchestra in the coming season.