Gil Shaham and Mahler, the Perfect Combination

March 25 2018

Usually, when I look at the season calendar to figure out which concerts to buy tickets to, I’m choosing between seeing a great soloist or a great orchestral piece. It’s very rare that I get to combine those two, especially in a pair that includes my most favored artists. Things have been busy, with the arrival of Kiki 9 months ago and my new job at Google. This was the first and only SFS concert we attended this season. So what a great treat that it was absolutely the perfect combination of Gil Shaham and a Mahler Symphony from the country’s best Mahler orchestra and conductor.

The program for the evening was Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Gil Shaham played the solo violin part, and Michael Tilson Thomas conducted.

I’d never really gotten into the Berg concerto, or twelve-tone in general. I knew the piece was popular amongst many 20th century violinists, due to its lyricism. The piece was dedicated to “the memory of an angel”, Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius. Alma Mahler is one of those names that comes up a lot in 20th century art. She was Gustav Mahler’s wife, and she directly resulted in some of Mahler’s finest music, both due to his love for her (the gorgeous Adagietto from the Fifth Symphony is really a love song to her) and due to her infidelity (the anguished screams in the unfinished Tenth Symphony have Alma’s name scrawled into the score). Alma Mahler is the through line for this program.

Gil Shaham was absolutely wonderful. Recently, I’ve noticed that he uses a very high tension bow, to the point where I could probably fit my thumb comfortably in the gap between his bow stick and the bow hair (for reference, the thickness I use barely covers my pinkie finger). The high tension is all the more remarkable given how completely he can control his bow speed and sound. There were chords in the beginning of the piece, where Shaham was playing with a very slow bow, not even that near the bridge, and yet still drawing a perfect, sustained sound. Mastery of the right hand really is what separates the 99th percentile of violinists from the 99.99 percentile.

In the second movement of the piece, there’s a section where the solo violinist leads kind of a round with other solo violin voices from within the firsts. Naturally, one of these voices was concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. I have greatly admired Barantschik since we started regularly coming to SFS concerts. He sets a great tone for the section, his bow is always in the right place, and his solos are always wonderful. So imagine my surprise, when it became clear how much different Gil Shaham’s sound was, compared to any of the other violin soloists, including Barantschik. Shaham’s sound was always warm, present, and striking. It’s yet another reminder of how rare a master like Gil Shaham is.

Gil Shaham with his usual pose of gratitude for the audience applause

Following the intermission, the symphony settled in to perfom Mahler. I mentioned in my post last year that I felt like MTT with SFS was the best Mahler orchestra in the country. I still feel that way. There was so much energy throughout the entire symphony, from every single musician, that there were several times I wanted to just shout out loud (and I later did, when the piece ended).

The orchestra was arranged in an interesting way, with the second violins across from the first violins (basically swapping with the cello section). This made a lot of sense, as there were several passages where the firsts and seconds passed the melody off to each other, so it was cool hearing that physically happen across the stage. It also completely exposed the second violnists, who usually are buried deeper in the orchestra and not easy to notice. But the second violinists in the SFS really do seem every bit as virtuosic as the firsts, and they played with equal energy, tone, and phrasing.

There were also some novelties from MTT this concert. In the first movement, he dropped his baton (I didn’t catch how), but picked it right back up. In the second movement, there was a section headed by the violins and strings, where MTT asked them to play softer. He kept demanding they player softer and softer, and actually lowered his body, Hawaii limbo style, while hanging on to the back of the podium. I honestly thought, there’s no way he’s flexible enough to get back up, but he kept that pose for what seemed like forever (even eliciting a laugh from the audience) before popping back up.

Topics: MusicMusic:ConcertsMusic:MahlerMusic:San Francisco SymphonyMusic:Violin Soloist

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