Violinist leads Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra to Cloud 10

Gil Shaham
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

By Andrew Druckenbrod


That's not just the rating I give violinist Gil Shaham's performance Friday night with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. It's also the number describing what we didn't hear, something perhaps even more extraordinary than his interpretation of a Mozart's violin concerto at Heinz Hall.

In a time when a concert soloist usually prepares two concerti a season, Mr. Shaham is performing 10: by Barber, Britten, Brahms, Mozart, Walton, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Prokofiev (second), Bartok (second) and Berg. It's a staggering number on its own, even more so considering the vast difference in style. He is simply underrated, a performer who seems more music than man when he performs.

Though ostensibly led by guest conductor Arild Remmereit, Mr. Shaham was in his own world, and possibly in Mozart's head, in his performance of an exuberant Violin Concerto No. 5, "Turkish." He seemed to be having the same experience with the soaring themes and poignant phrasing as Mozart did. He varied the violin's timbre as he passed through the work, as if it were a dynamic written in the score. He knew when to grab for the grandiose, such as in the first theme the violin gets in the opening movement, and when to let the pure-toned chords speak for themselves. It was as if he was viewing the work as it developed compositionally, not just as notes to play

When he came to the vestiges of the Ottoman Empire that Mozart wrote into an episode of the finale, Mr. Shaham captured the release it offered -- Mozart using this music as a guise to break free a little from Austrian genteel convention.

And in the encore we found out why the violinist captured that so well: He brought in the orchestra for an pyrotechnic encore of his own arrangement (called "Nihavent Longa") of Turkish folk music.

If the above sounds like the audience and musicians were unaware of the tragedy of the school shootings earlier in the day, it was not the case. A moment of silence opened the concert. Music has a way of both intensifying and soothing the pangs of hurt and disbelief, however removed from the source we are.

The piece that opened the concert, George Walker's Sinfonia No. 4, "Strands" (a PSO co-commission), unintentionally pushed the former. Its jolting start and pungent dissonance gave way to melancholic strains led by cellist Anne Martindale Williams. It seemed to me to end with anger -- purple chords that went unresolved.

Mr. Walker, in attendance, may not have meant this at all, but such is art.

The concert ended with a lesser-known work by a very well-known composer: Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 1, "Winter Dreams." Mr. Remmereit did his best to pull the kernels of genius from a work that approaches the maudlin and betrays the composer's influences, like Mendelssohn. But this is an orchestra of soloists who can distill artistically, as well, and principals such as oboist Cynthia DeAlmeida, reminded us more of mature Tchaikovsky than the young composer that he was.