Gil Shaham and Akira Eguchi in Celebrity Series

By David Weininger
February 7, 2013

One of the virtues of the recital program that violinist Gil Shaham is bringing to Jordan Hall on Sunday is that it gives an unusually inclusive portrait of this inquisitive, charismatic musician.

Take the concert’s centerpiece: a new piece for solo violin written for Shaham by the eminent American composer William Bolcom, whom Shaham got to know while playing Bolcom’s violin concerto a few years ago in Toronto. When Music Accord, a consortium of presenters that includes the Celebrity Series of Boston, offered to commission a new work for Shaham from an American composer, Bolcom was his first suggestion.

“What’s amazing to me is how well crafted it is,” said Shaham of the Suite No. 2 for Solo Violin, during a recent phone conversation from his New York home. “I feel very proud of my violin knowledge, I feel like I should know something about the instrument,” he continued with a laugh. “But I find with Bill that he is able to teach me about the violin things that I didn’t know.”

A hallmark of Bolcom’s composing is the intermingling of disparate musical dialects, and the new nine-movement suite is no exception. One movement, “Lenny in Spats,” is written entirely in high harmonics but has a blues feel; another, “Fuga malinconica,” is a fugue on a 12-tone theme, and brings a dark stretch into what is generally an outgoing piece. “Dancing in Place” requires the violinist to sound a note by striking the fingerboard with his left finger.

Yet for all the suite’s expressive range, Bolcom took as his starting point the sonatas and partitas for solo violin of Bach. These are the cornerstones of most violinists’ repertoire, though Shaham, 41, noted that he only started to play them in public “six or seven years ago,” until then feeling too intimidated by their awesome stature. Bolcom’s piece doesn’t allude to any specific music by Bach, but Shaham has included the E major Partita on this program, “probably the most joyous of the six. Hopefully it’ll work in the program – to help one piece illuminate the other.”

The Bach and Bolcom anchor a program that includes three works for violin and piano with pianist Akira Eguchi. Schubert’s Sonatina in A minor is among the violin-piano works that seem to get short shrift among the composer’s chamber music, though Shaham thinks of them as neglected masterpieces.

There are also two other pieces written for Shaham. “In the Country of Lost Things . . .” was written by Julian Milone, a friend of Shaham’s and a violinist with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London. It’s based in part on Paul Auster’s dystopian novel “In the Country of Last Things,” about a woman’s search through the remnants of a destroyed city to find her brother. The piece, Shaham said, evokes the same mixture of devastation and nostalgia that the novel does. Finally, there is a sonata by Israeli composer Avner Dorman that’s part of a program of works based on Jewish folk music Shaham has been playing with his sister Orli, a pianist.

Shaham’s other large-scale undertaking is a project that focuses on violin concertos written in the 1930s. It may seem like just a random chunk of time until you consider the jaw-dropping list of composers who wrote violin concertos between 1931 and 1939: Berg, Bartok, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Britten, Szymanowski, Walton, Milhaud, Hartmann. Shaham has been playing many of them over the last few seasons, including performances of the Britten concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra this past November.

What gave rise to this string of top-flight pieces in such a compact period of time? Shaham freely admits that the endeavor is less an effort to answer that question than “an excuse for me to play some of the music I love.” Still, it’s possible that the form of the violin concerto – pitting a single melodic voice against a mass of instruments – became a particularly apt conduit for the anxieties of the interwar years.

He remembered the reaction of an audience member in Washington, D.C., after a performance. “What was it about that time in history?” he remembers the man asking. “People must have felt this fear and trepidation, they were on the edge of a volcano, waiting for the eruption.

“I don’t know any of the answers. But there is something to this genre.”

Shaham noted that some of the concertos, particularly those by Britten and Hartmann, were explicit reactions to world events. “There’s something about the weeping quality of the violin, these issues of the individual vs. society. Maybe you can say something after all.”

When asked what these two projects said about him as an artist, Shaham related his current ambitions to his experience as a father of three.

“I always tell my kids, you should go for it, you should try something new,” he said. “Don’t be worried about making a mistake. And when I look at myself, I almost never follow that advice. And I think maybe I should. Maybe it’s something about having a midlife crisis or trying, desperately, to grow up.”

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