Stamp of Approval for Film Composer

Gil Shaham
The Wall Street Journal

Gil Shaham Brings Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Work to Carnegie Hall

By Corinne Ramey

In his day, Erich Wolfgang Korngold was a wildly successful, Oscar-winning film composer, his thickly romantic music accompanying the swashbuckling adventure and romance in Errol Flynn movies.

Despite his Hollywood stardom, however, Mr. Korngold, essentially the John Williams of his time, was bitter that the classical-music establishment largely ignored his work.

"He was very upset that his music was not played by the Vienna Philharmonic, and by the cultural institutions of the time," said the violinist Gil Shaham.

The work of Korngold, who died in 1957, has gotten more respect posthumously. His violin concerto has been increasingly performed in the past two decades, and, in perhaps the ultimate stamp of establishment approval, it will be performed by Mr. Shaham in Carnegie Hall on Sunday, with conductor Zubin Mehta and the Vienna Philharmonic. The concerto is the centerpiece of a three-hour Vienna-fest that Mr. Mehta called "Vienna eclectic," and the final concert in the hall's "Vienna: City of Dreams" festival.

When the violinist Jascha Heifetz played the concerto's New York premiere at Carnegie in 1947, it was derided by critics as "more corn than gold" and "a Hollywood concerto." Since then, it has been played three times at Carnegie, most recently by the New York Pops.

"I grew up with Korngold movies, those Errol Flynn movies, even as a young boy in Israel," Mr. Mehta said in a phone interview. "I know some of the themes from those days."

Mr. Shaham, 43 years old, who spent his childhood in Israel and now lives in New York, first learned the concerto at age 16. "When I started performing this piece I'd offer it to orchestras and conductors, and it would be refused," he said. "Orchestras would say 'Our marketing department doesn't think they can sell tickets.'"

No longer. Bachtrack, a concert listing website, counts 18 performances of the Korngold during March and April alone, eight of which are played by Mr. Shaham.

Melodies from Korngold's film scores, including those of "The Prince and the Pauper" and "Anthony Adverse," make cameos in the cinematic concerto. Mr. Shaham loved the films, although he noted that some themes, like a flute melody from "The Prince and the Pauper," show up elsewhere in the orchestra. "I think it sounds better on the violin," he said, "but I'm a little biased."

The focus on Korngold is an extension of Mr. Shaham's 1930s project, his look at the many violin concertos—including Berg, Stravinsky, Britten, Barber and Prokofiev —written during one decade. While the Korngold wasn't published until 1945, it bears traces of the '30s and may have been written then, because the always-principled Korngold refused to publish concert music while Hitler remained in power.

"He wrote the film scores to support his family, to make a living, but would not write music for the concert stage," said Mr. Shaham.

The focus on the turbulent decade might seem to clash with Mr. Shaham's genial personality. But the violinist has another side, said David Robertson, who conducted several concertos on Shaham's recent 1930s album and will perform the Korngold with him this spring.

"Because Gil seems to have such a beautifully sunny disposition, many people aren't aware of how deep a thinker he is about music," said Mr. Robertson, who is married to Mr. Shaham's sister, the pianist Orli Shaham. "When you are performing with him and right next to him, it's like looking down a well. The depth in that well is really profound."