Vail Valley festival violinist Gil Shaham "stuck on" 1930s music

07.22.11
Gil Shaham
Denver Post

By Kyle MacMillan

Marked by Kristallnacht, the Great Depression and the beginning of World War II , the 1930s were an unquestionably important historical decade.

But because of that turmoil or perhaps despite it, those 10 years also happen to be among the most artistically rich of the 20th century, producing in 1939, for example, what many critics believe to be the best year ever for cinema.

Less well known is a compositional confluence in classical music that resulted in an extraordinary group of at least 14 violin concertos by noted composers, ranging from Igor Stravinsky and Bela Bartok to Samuel Barber and Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

"It's almost unavoidable for violinists not to notice a spike in the 1930s," said Gil Shaham, who will perform English composer William Walton's little-known 1938-39 Violin Concerto on Wednesday at the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival.

Since the 2009-10 season, the internationally respected violin soloist has devoted more than 50 percent of his schedule to performances of the 1930s concertos.

Although details are still being worked out, Shaham is also planning on releasing live performances of some of the pieces on the Canary Classics label, a project that could ultimately culminate in a CD box set.

In the past, the violinist has performed the complete chamber music of Brahms and other bodies of work, but this is by far the most ambitious themed project he has taken on.

"Maybe it's kind of childish, but my mind works like that," he said. "I get stuck on something, and I just want to go back to it all the time."

Shaham's interest in the 1930s began in 2000, as he tried to take stock of the century that had just ended and its sprawling musical legacy. He found himself zeroing in on what he sees as the iconic concertos of that key decade.

"The pieces are symbolic of the times," Shaham said. "They're emblematic of the composer's voices, techniques and styles. And they are kind of a point of departure. You could say: violin concertos up until Bartok's Second or violin concertos after Alban Berg 's."

In the preceding couple decades, violin concertos were not in fashion. Neither Claude Debussy or Maurice Ravel , for example, wrote pieces in the form. But something changed in the 1930s, and Shaham is not sure what.

"I really don't know any answers, but I do think it's thought-provoking and it has been fascinating to play this music and listen to people's reactions," he said.

Shaham's wife, violinist Adele Anthony, has performed the Walton Concerto since she was a student, and he never dared to play it, because it was "her" piece. But several years ago, they essentially traded works, with Anthony trying her hand at Erich Wolfgang Korngold 's Violin Concerto, which Shaham has long championed, and Shaham taking on the Walton.

He has performed the concerto extensively this year, and he returns to it Wednesday evening with conductor Ludovic Merlot and the New York Philharmonic , as part of the orchestra's ninth annual residency in Vail.

Shaham believes the concerto, which was commissioned by famed violinist Jascha Heifetz , has been unfairly neglected in the United States. Though neo-romantic in style, echoing Edward Elgar 's Violin Concerto from 30 years before, it incorporates such avant-garde compositional techniques as 12-tone rows.

"I think it is a tremendous piece," Shaham said. "It's very Waltonesque. It has this edgy, brassy, jazzy sound, and it has this perfection of a great master."