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Music review: Shaham dazzles in Beethoven with Robertson, SLSO

Gil Shaham
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

By Sarah Bryan Miller

The extended Robertson-Shaham clan decided to spend Thanksgiving in St. Louis this year, and that’s good news for local music-lovers.

It means that St. Louis Symphony Orchestra music director David Robertson and his brother-in-law, the brilliant violinist Gil Shaham, are onstage at Powell Symphony Hall this weekend.

The SLSO presented an audience-friendly program of familiar music with a Viennese background: some Johann Strauss Jr., some Haydn, some Beethoven. It was a good choice artistically for those who might be attending for the first time; it was also, in practical terms, a good choice for a week when rehearsal time was short.

Strauss’ “Geschichten aus den Wienerwald (Tales from the Vienna Woods)” might have benefited from just a tad more rehearsal on Friday night, but it made for a charming, Gemütlich opening to the concert. Zither soloist Kurt von Eckroth aced his part and seemed to be having a wonderful time doing it.

Franz Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major, the “London,” is one of his best-loved and most-heard. A graceful, well-balanced score, it evokes what Sir Kenneth Clark called “the smile of Reason” and deserves all its considerable popularity.

The symphony received a spirited, playful reading from Robertson and the orchestra. Robertson shaped its proportions thoughtfully and gave it room to breathe; the players responded with a near-perfect reading of a satisfying souvenir of the Enlightenment.

Ludwig van Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in D major was a good practical choice for the second half: Robertson and the SLSO performed it four times in four days with the gifted violinist Christian Tetzlaff on their European tour in September. By now, it’s probably ingrained in their fingers and brain cells.

It was instructive to hear a very different soloist in this concerto with these forces in a score they know so well. Where Tetzlaff’s approach is introverted and idiosyncratic, Shaham’s is idiomatic yet individual.

Many great soloists seem to inhabit the music they’re playing. In Shaham’s case, it is more as if the music possesses him, and he is merely its (amazingly intense) conduit. He brings to the score a blazing intelligence, energy and musicality. Shaham’s playing gives the sense that, for him, music is life; music sustains him. It’s music as oxygen, for the listener as well as the performer.

His rich sound is assisted by his instrument, the “Countess Polignac” Stradivari. (Robertson got off one of his better one-liners when Shaham paused after the first movement to retune: “It’s from 1699 — you’d think it would be tuned by now.”)

He plays well with others, too. It’s not surprising that he and his brother-in-law seem to breathe and think as one; Shaham and Robertson were in perfect accord with the orchestra as well, for a performance that was outstanding in every way.