Saturday, November 5, 2016

Gil Shaham undertakes a concerto binge with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra

Fairly bursting with collegiality and indications of how glad he was to be there, Gil Shaham conducted and played his violin Friday in the first full program of his weekend's visit to the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.

Gil Shaham: Master of this weekend's ISO concerto fest
It was also important, of course, for the American violinist, who spent his formative years in Israel, to deliver the musical goods. That was amply evident at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in a program of Bach and Beethoven, in which he shared the soloist spotlight with Jennifer Christen, the ISO's principal oboist.

His approach to the program's most substantial work, Beethoven's Violin Concerto in D major, seemed understated at the outset. It was difficult to know what to make of such an inward-looking presentation of the solo part. Yet the long first movement unfolded with a keen sense of drama. Particularly at a suspenseful point near the end, against repeated trumpet notes, Shaham, with the orchestra's support, pumped the bellows and fanned the music's steady flame into a blaze.

Jennifer Christen: Her being featured in the encore was a special treat.
The Larghetto movement also brimmed with elements of surprise. Its heart-stopping lyricism had notes of elfin charm in Shaham's performance.  The hold that bridges the second movement and the finale was extended, and made portentous, with the insertion of the defining timpani pattern by principal Jack Brennan. This gave extra flavor to the launch of the Rondo: Allegro. Shaham allowed himself some deft ornamentation in repeats of the rondo theme. Also fresh and effective was the slowing of tempo near the very end, followed by an exuberant acceleration up to the double bar.

Before intermission, Shaham's insight into the material at hand was stunning as well. He bounded onstage to open the concert with Bach's Violin Concerto No. 2 in E major, BWV 1042. The string orchestra accompanied with significant emphasis on brief solo passages complementing the main solo, which Shaham played with sparkle and imaginative thrust. The dignified second movement was given just the right weight, with pomp infusing the second theme. Brief dialogues with principal cellist Austin Huntington approached an ideal of low-key partnership.

The small, fit ensemble, with Sylvia Patterson Scott at the harpsichord, remained in place for the Concerto in C minor for oboe, violin and orchestra. Interaction by the soloists in the first movement was neat and animated. Christen's oboe led the way sweetly in the Adagio; the finale — very Vivaldian in its plateaus and parade of sequences — was delightful in all respects.

How appropriate it was for Shaham to choose as an encore after the Beethoven concerto the slow movement of the oboe-violin concerto, bringing Christen back to the stage. This time, though I may have been feeling the exhilarating effect of the whole concert, her playing sounded even freer, fuller, more buoyant and well put together than before. It was the best kind of encore experience, banishing every thought of the national political jolt that will intervene before the ISO's next classical program on Nov. 12 — after which the Classical Series takes a two-month break.

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