Violin star Gil Shaham was the featured soloist at Thursday’s Atlanta Symphony Orchestra concert, performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Concerto No. 2 in E Major as well as the Stravinsky Concerto in D Major.
Shaham likes to play Bach rather fast, and the first and final movements of the Bach concerto were filled with energy, showing off the technical brilliance for which Shaham is famed. The danger with this approach is that it can make for a superficial performance: dazzling but lacking in depth. That wasn’t the feeling we got from Shaham, though. I have heard him speak of the importance of playing with “swing,” and he accomplished this with brilliantly subtle techniques and phrasing acquired over a lifetime of exploration. The Adagio was a revelation, with Shaham’s fine, transparent tone beckoning gently.
Shaham hunches over his instrument, then looks up and around, beaming with an impish smile. Clearly he is someone who enjoys himself and, though immersed in the work, likes to put on a bit of a show. During Thursday’s concert, he would often wander quite close to the conductor, Robert Spano, bent over yet looking up at him in a display of unity and perhaps a bow of respect. And when there was a dialogue in the score, Shaham danced over to the concertmaster, sharing the spotlight. For the Bach, this was Justin Bruns, “the other blond guy.” David Coucheron, who sat in the audience wearing jeans, returned to the first chair after intermission for the Stravinsky, where he got the same treatment.
Stravinsky’s lone violin concerto is not a flashy piece with showy cadenzas. But in its way, it is among the more challenging bits in the repertoire. The soloist is often quite exposed. And it is sufficiently difficult that Stravinsky, not a virtuoso violinist himself, was concerned as to whether it was playable. A friend, violinist Samuel Dushkin, initially told him it was not. But Dushkin went on to perform the premiere.
At about 20 minutes, the concerto is written with four movements. In the first, the soloist introduces a motif that will recur throughout the piece and gets into dialogue with various elements of the orchestra. This is accompanied by circus-sounding music, which needs to be performed with a certain rum-pum-pum, and Spano measured this out with just the right flair. You could smell the sawdust.
There are two aria movements, and here Shaham played at his most delicate, floating over the ensemble in a nicely balanced and mesmerizing interlude. The finale is challenging and great fun, and here it was a show-stopper. And if the orchestra had seemed to hold back a bit in the Bach, it got a chance to show its mettle in the Stravinsky with challenging passages for everyone.
Although this was a program that showed off his range, Shaham performs a surprisingly small repertoire. And, though one might not realize this in Atlanta, where this is his eighth appearance, he limits his schedule to about 50 concerts a year.
In addition to the Bach concerto, the concert opened with two fragments of his work, perhaps to get us into the mood. First up was the Sinfonia in D, from his Cantata No. 29. It features the organ, played nicely here by Peter Marshall, and was given a majestic, church-like reading by Spano. Things seemed a bit murky, though, with a few glitches.
Then came Bach’s Cantata No. 50, a nice little fragment; it is presumed to be part of a work with other movements that have been lost or were never completed. Here it showed off the ASO Chorus, which sparkled. Balanced finely, and again quite austere, it got us settled into a Bach groove.
After the Stravinsky, chorus and orchestra performed Poulenc’s “Gloria,” a 20-minute work often excerpted during the holidays. The ASO had not performed it in its entirety since 1995, under Robert Shaw. This is a mystery, because the work’s demands seem tailored for this chorus with its precision, its dexterity and its clean, “singing as one” tone. Here it got a knockout performance, big and bold, with both orchestra and chorus in overdrive.
If there seemed to be an extra twinkle in the eyes of the soloist, Ailyn Perez, it might be because, on the very morning of the concert, she’d been named the winner of the Richard Tucker Award, the Heisman Trophy of classical singing, which pretty much guarantees its recipient a career in opera and which also includes a cash prize of $30,000.
Perez is dazzling, and her light soprano voice is capable of soaring right through the sounds massed behind her. She has near-perfect intonation and her interpretation is sensitive to the text. The only real issue with her performance here was an exaggerated trill on phrases beginning with consonants. The ability to trill well, not shared by all singers, is a valuable tool, but it must be used judiciously. Here it became a distraction from an otherwise fine performance.
An evening of great contrasts featuring soloists of the first rank, the concert will be repeated on Saturday, April 14, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, April 15, at 3.