Dallas — Bach wrote two concerti for solo violin. They are standards of the violin concerto repertoire, and they are not especially technically demanding compared to their 19th- and 20th-century brethren. Thus, they are often played by children, most of the time with decidedly imperfect results. Gil Shaham, on the other hand, is one of the most technically and musically accomplished violinists of our generation, so listening to him perform both the A minor and the E major concerti by Bach with the Dallas Symphony Center was a revelation.
Broadly speaking, there are two categories of Bach interpreters. First, there are those wedded to authentic performance practice. These are the folks who perform on instruments set up to Baroque specifications—in the case of violins, that means without a chin rest, with real gut strings, and with a shorter Baroque bow, among other differences. They typically eschew most (or sometimes all) vibrato, and they assiduously study minutiae of authentic Baroque ornamentation and style.
At the other end of the continuum are those who play Bach on modern instruments, using lots of vibrato, playing with big orchestras, and having little concern for how Bach’s contemporaries might have performed his music.
On Friday evening, Gil Shaham and a small subset of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra found a middle point on this continuum, mostly with happy results. Shaham has recently begun exploring the violin works of Bach—his recording of the Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin was released earlier this month. Shaham’s thoughtful, intelligent approach to Bach evinces itself not only in the recording, but also in his DSO performance.
Yes, he used vibrato. Sometimes a bit too much. But his sound managed to be appropriate to the music while avoiding the dryness that sometimes plagues authentic-performance-practice string players. He was technically nearly flawless, he imbued new life to the music, and his ornamentation was interesting without being distracting. Tempos in the fast movements were sometimes a bit too much of a whirlwind—the listener barely had time to think and digest. But overall, it was a successful modern interpretation.
And Shaham is delightful to watch. He radiates joy when he plays—his glowing expression seems to project the idea that in this moment, playing violin really, really well is the Best Thing Ever.
The second half of the program consisted of Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 4 (“Romantic”). Only a couple of audience members had had enough and sneaked out after the first two movements. The rest stuck it out for the entirety of this hour-plus homage to The Symphony in its full glory. The orchestra is huge, the themes are gorgeous, there are good parts for nearly everyone. In particular, the horns and, bless him, violas get some of the best material in the repertoire—and both the viola section and Principal Horn David Cooper excelled.