Preview: Violinist Gil Shaham joins Memphis Symphony on 'Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto'

Mei-Ann Chen
The Commercial Appeal

By Jon W. Sparks

You might be forgiven for thinking Gil Shaham is still a young prodigy. Although he's 40, the violinist has been a vital part of the Memphis classical scene ever since he appeared in the Artists Ascending program in the early 1990s, fixing in our collective minds the young virtuoso who impressed early and often.

Shaham has made numerous visits back to the city, performing for delighted audiences and adding to his fan base here.

This weekend, he is back again, performing in a romantic program with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra in two Masterworks series concerts: Saturday night at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts and Sunday afternoon at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre.

The concerts, led by MSO music director Mei-Ann Chen, will feature the popular Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." But the piece Shaham will perform may well be even more popular on a global scale.

"I've heard that 'Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto' is the single most-often-performed symphonic work in the world," Shaham said in an interview this week.

"It has an enormous following, mostly in the Chinese-speaking world," he said. "The first time I heard it, I was in my 20s and living in Hong Kong, and a fellow musician took me to his stereo system and put it on. It starts with a flute cadenza, and then the violin launches into a beautiful melody. He turned to me and said, 'It's beautiful, isn't it?' I saw he was welling up with emotion, and I thought, 'My gosh, any music that has this effect on a grown man -- and a cynical musician at that -- I have to learn.' And sure enough, that melody is incredibly beautiful, and once I started looking at the piece, it opened up a whole world of which I'd been completely ignorant."

The 1959 tone poem tells the centuries-old legend of Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, a pair of lovers who embody the same romantic and social impact for the Chinese as Romeo and Juliet do for Western culture.

They are the butterfly lovers, and the legend has been recounted in numerous ways, as Chinese opera, in stage plays, in film and television and in music, most notably the piece Shaham will perform this weekend.

In the story, a young noblewoman, Zhu Yingtai, goes off to school disguised as a man since females weren't allowed in the university. She falls in love with a young peasant scholar, Liang Shanbo, but even after she gives up her disguise, they cannot marry since her family has arranged for her to marry a nobleman. Liang, heartbroken, falls ill and dies.

Zhu, grieving, goes ahead with the wedding, but on the day of the marriage, the procession passes by the grave of Liang. Whirlwinds stop the journey, and the grave opens up with a clap of thunder. Zhu throws herself into it, and their spirits turn into butterflies that fly away into eternity.

"The composers, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao, were students at Shanghai Conservatory," Shaham said, "and wrote it for Western-style orchestration, although it is often performed with Chinese stringed instruments such as the pipa and erhu."

Shaham, though, will perform the concerto on his "Comtesse de Polignac" Stradivarius -- the sort of Western influence that nearly doomed the piece. After an initial good reaction to the work in the late 1950s and early '60s, the Chinese Cultural Revolution condemned Western culture. As a result, the young composers as well as the violinist who premiered the piece "were arrested for crimes worse than murder, if you can imagine," Shaham said.

The concerto was scored for a Western orchestra, although Chen and He used Chinese influences and folk material. That wasn't enough for the rigid Maoists. "The story is also very much about individualism and is anti-Communist," Shaham said. "And it's not an atheistic story as was required back then."

But the power still remained with the masses. Popular demand made the Cultural Revolutionaries back off and allowed the "Butterfly Lovers Violin Concerto" back into circulation, where it has soared even higher.