Evening of Showpieces, and One Unscripted Twist

11.22.08
Gil Shaham
The New York Times

But it is hard to imagine that this 90-minute affair, broadcast as part of the "Live From Lincoln Center" series, accomplished much in the way of "audience development and outreach," which Reynold Levy, the president of Lincoln Center, defined in preconcert comments as the mission of the series since its inception 33 years ago.

 For this gala program Mr. Shaham, who played brilliantly, was joined by the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and the pianist Jonathan Feldman. The penthouse, festooned with flower arrangements, accommodated 150 guests. Stationed in the lobby nearby, Renée Fleming, no less, was the effusive on-camera host for the broadcast, which Mr. Levy estimated would reach six million viewers.

Still, Sarasate, who died 100 years ago, never pretended that his virtuoso violin pieces were anything but shamelessly entertaining fare. As treats to lighten up substantial programs they work quite well today. But heard one after another, these showpieces started to seem pretty thin.

Born in Pamplona in 1844, Sarasate was one of the most revered violinists of his day. He was almost the opposite of the Austro-Hungarian violinist Joseph Joachim, a probing, intellectual and Germanic musician. Sarasate's playing was praised for its sweetness of tone, focused vibrato and almost frictionless bow stroke. He performed with unsentimental clarity and awesome technical control, qualities amply displayed by Mr. Shaham.

Mr. Shaham's infectious feeling for Sarasate's music came through, starting with "Zapateado," a hypervirtuosic Spanish cowboy dance for violin and piano. He then captured Sarasate's dreamy side in "Zortzico Adios Montanas Mias," an undulant work for violin and orchestra in which a sultry violin tune is rendered with increasingly elaborate filigree.

Mr. Shaham also delivered charmingly earnest introductions to the works, complete with one-liners. Referring to Sarasate's transcription of the Romance and Gavotte from Ambroise Thomas's opera "Mignon," he confessed that, before learning the piece, he did not know the opera at all. "I only knew the filet," he said.

He excelled in two other Sarasate works for violin and orchestra, a clever fantasy on themes from Mozart's "Magic Flute" and "Zigeunerweisen," a pastiche of Gypsy dance tunes and a staple of virtuoso violinists.

Though Mr. Shaham called Sarasate his hero, they differ in one crucial way. Sarasate was devoted to the composers of his day, something that cannot be said of Mr. Shaham. A long list of composers, including Bruch, Saint-Saëns, Lalo, Wieniawski and even Joachim, dedicated major pieces to Sarasate. Mr. Shaham has made his name overwhelmingly as an interpreter of standard repertory.

For the final work on the program, "Navarra," Mr. Shaham was joined by his wife, the violinist Adele Anthony. Then he was ambushed by the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, his friend, who appeared, all smiles, bearing the Avery Fisher Prize for 2008. Mr. Shaham, who is 37, becomes the 20th winner of this prize, which includes a $75,000 award. The presentation lent an element of the unexpected to an otherwise predictable gala.