Bittersweet ‘Memory’: Berg concerto explores the life and death of a teenager

Friday, April 27, 2012
By Ronni Reich –

About 10 years ago, violinist Gil Shaham began to take a serious look back at the music of the 20th century. It was impossible, he says, not to notice a spike in music for his instrument in the 1930s.

“People lived with tumult and trepidation, as if on the edge of a volcano waiting for the eruption,” he says.

For the past two seasons, Shaham, 41, has devoted himself to the concertos of that decade — to thinking about how the music reflected its time and how it affects us today. He considers whether composers focused on the violin for its “weeping quality” or for the way the tender, single-lined instrument backed by an orchestra could represent a single voice set apart from society.

The world-class violinist has taken up works by composers as diverse as Igor Stravinsky, Samuel Barber and Alban Berg, whose 1935 violin concerto, “To the Memory of an Angel,” he will perform with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra this weekend under music director Jacques Lacombe. The work was written as a tribute to Manon Gropius — daughter of Alma Mahler and architect Walter Gropius — who died when she was 18.

The American violinist Louis Krasner commissioned the piece, telling Berg that he would be the one to silence critics of the Second Viennese School of composition. Berg, he said, would prove that the 12-tone music of the day — which dispensed with traditional tonal harmony — could be “soul-stirring.” Shaham describes the piece as a gripping journey.

“I find it to be almost operatic,” he says. “It grows from this nostalgic remembering of her life through her death struggle and then to this incredible transcendent ending.”

Shaham will also be the soloist for a work of our time, the world premiere of Richard Danielpour’s “Kaddish” for Violin and Orchestra. Shaham and Danielpour have known each other for more than 20 years. The piece is dedicated to the composer’s late father.

“There’s no question that he’s a consummate craftsman in the same way that Alban Berg was,” Shaham says. “And the message (in both pieces) is visceral, is something very emotional.”

The concert’s somber mood prevails in Mozart’s 1785 “Masonic Funeral Music,” which opens the performance, and in Prokofiev’s darkly energetic “Symphony No. 3,” which premiered in 1929, on the cusp of the time that Shaham has been so dedicated to exploring.

“I almost think of walking into a room in a gallery and you look from one masterpiece to another,” he says.

That kind of voyage through time can be found within the Berg concerto. Toward the end of the piece, the composer draws on a melody from the Bach chorale “Es ist genug” (“It is enough”) from the 1723 Cantata No. 60, in which the singer welcomes release from earthly suffering. First, the violin plays the accessible, heart-tugging melody, which Berg has harmonized in his own style. Immediately after, a choir of clarinets echoes him, “playing softly, almost like a church organ in the distance.”

“There’s something very poignant about the transition from old Europe to the sense of anxiety and loss and (wondering) what will happen with new Europe,” Shaham says. “Maybe music really does have a way of capturing a time.”

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