Sunday, April 27, 2008


Now that my dog is fully recovered from his misguided gourmandizing, I can say something about the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra concert I attended the night of the 12th.

I had the ticket as part of a seven-concert season series, the night's theme was "Sublime Melodies," and I couldn't remember who was to be featured or what was to be played. Would there be a vocal soloist performing some Lieder? That'd be nice, but who knew?

I decided not to go online to refresh my memory. I'd just drive downtown and see what the evening would bring.

I was late getting out the door (my poor doggie!), and with traffic and parking, I barely had time to get into my seat before the concert hall lights dimmed, guest conductor Juraj Valcuha took the podium, and the music began.

I thought I heard my neighbor in the row above say something to his wife about "Mendelssohn" and "Oberon," but the first piece definitely wasn't the Incidental Music to a Midsummer Night's Dream. Though it was light, glancing, mischievous, flying and flighty-- Oh! It must be Carl Maria von Weber's overture to Oberon!

And so it was.

I steadfastly refused to look at my program even for the next piece. I was just going to let the music come at me, untrammelled by the annotator's comments.

Then out onto the stage strode a solo violinist. I had to look at the program to see who he was.

Oh! It was Gil Shaham! I've heard of his fame, but I'd never seen him play before. If I had, I assuredly would have remembered.

Most solo violinists stand forward, towards the front of the stage, with the conductor and concertmaster actually at their backs. It's like they're saying, "I'm playing this piece the way I play it, and the rest of you can just follow me."

A lot of times it works. But Mr. Shaham wasn't having any part of that. He took up his position well upstage, even with the PSO violinist in the third chair back. Sometimes he seemed to wade into the orchestra farther still. He kept eye contact with conductor Valcuha, and when he didn't, he was interacting with and acknowledging the playing of the Pittsburgh orchestra rank and file.

His stance was striking. He plays with his whole body, flexing deeply at the knees, cradling the violin (a 1699 Stradivarius, by the way), stretching upwards, bending over, bowing his head-- he seemed totally possessed by the music and by the communal experience of playing it with his fellow musicians. He made love to the conductor, to his fiddle, to the music, and to the ladies of the PSO violins. It seemed totally in keeping with the spirit of the piece.

What was the piece? It was Mendelssohn's E minor Violin Concerto. Played very, very well. Jump to the feet in applause very well. Mr. Shaham and Maestro Valcuha were recalled time after time. And we were favored with a substantial solo encore. I wasn't familiar with it, but I'm pretty sure it was Bach. Some sort of variations? I didn't ask, but wish I had.

After the intermission, Dvorak's The Water Goblin and Richard Strauss' suite from Der Rosenkavalier. My mind was wandering a bit by now; I thought of my childhood when I'd hear snippets from the Baron Ochs Waltz on radio advertisements for the Longines Symphonette, whatever that was. At the time I thought it was the loveliest, most graceful piece of music imaginable. How surprised I was as an adult to learn that it was the leitmotif for a superannuated, blumbling clod leching after a girl young enough to be his daughter!

The things you learn.

And I guess I shouldn't throw rocks at Ochs. Maestro Valcuha is young, trim, and (I couldn't help noticing), very, very cute. And me, I'm old enough to be his--

Aunt. A very youthful aunt!


Toby Brown said...

Sounds like a great concert. Gil Shaham is at the top of his game and he is one of the best that we have. He plays with passion and yet is not egotistical--quite a combination! He has not one ounce of the soupy, uber-vibrato that other young violinists use these days...

I am a violinist myself, so I get critical of some. ;)

Sandy said...

Sounds so lovely...