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Shaham delightfully upbeat in Schuman

03.07.08
Gil Shaham
San Francisco Chronicle

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will be turning a genial face toward the East during next week's tour of New York, New Jersey and Michigan. In addition to Shostakovich's cheeky little Ninth Symphony, unveiled last week, the tour repertoire also includes William Schuman's wonderfully amiable Violin Concerto, which got a delightful reprise in Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday night.

The soloist was Gil Shaham, who played the piece here two years ago and will accompany the orchestra to Carnegie Hall, and he turned out once again to be the perfect man for the job. At his best, Shaham plays with a combination of rigor and ingratiating gentleness, and nothing could be better suited for Schuman's 30-minute opus, which is not a masterpiece but works overtime to help a listener forget that fact.

Written in 1947 and extensively revised in 1959, the concerto is like a breezy compendium of the stylistic resources available to American composers at midcentury. It unfolds in two long movements that are as blocky and segmented as an abstract German noun, but formal unity is the furthest thing from anyone's mind.

Instead, Schuman lays out his wares with a showman's glee, and invites the soloist to do the same. The piece begins and ends with a breathless flurry of activity, and in between the mood changes with beguiling ease, from jazzy populism - the huge first-movement cadenza takes off with a little riff from Harold Arlen's pop classic "Blues in the Night" - to thundering Old Testament pronouncements from the brass and timpani, to sweet-toned rhapsodizing (Schuman also throws in a predictably time-wasting fugue, just for fun).

Shaham's performance captured the music's air of gleeful heedlessness. His string tone becomes warmer and more inviting year by year, and the boyish ebullience that used to run through every performance - sometimes to the detriment of other virtues - is increasingly tempered by patience and serenity.

Not to excess, fortunately. Shaham unreeled the first movement's slow, lyrical episode with an air of restraint that made its tenderness all the more inviting. But he never lost sight of the fact that the piece is mostly an extended jeu d'esprit, and he and Thomas conspired to make fun the centerpiece of the performance. (Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto replaces the Schuman on Saturday's program.)

The second half of the program was devoted to more serious fare, a performance of Beethoven's "Eroica" Symphony that began magnificently but bogged down a little in midstream.

The first movement was among the most exciting renditions of this music I've heard, thanks to Thomas' determination to inject it with an almost aggressive air of buoyancy. The two opening chords bounced into the air like big rubber balls, and the ensuing main theme was so springy that the resulting kinetic energy carried through the entire movement.

But the "Funeral March" that followed dissipated that momentum - as it inevitably must - and Thomas and the orchestra struggled to regain it. The last two movements sounded vigorous but slightly slushy, apart from the final breathless sprint into home that made for a rousing end.