Tag Archives: violin

Gil Shaham, Greece and an old Chinese legend

I recently had the chance to meet and talk with American violinist Gil Shaham in Barcelona, on the occasion of his performance of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto in L’Auditori (you can read the full interview here).

Towards the end of our conversation we talked a bit about Greece and the soloist’s only visit there so far, which he seemed to remember very vividly:

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Gil Shaham with his ‘Countess Polignac’ Stradivarius, backstage in L’Auditori

“I have never been in Athens, but I’ve been in Thessaloniki. I performed there around 10 years ago with a very good Greek orchestra. We played a piece called the Butterfly Lovers’ Violin Concerto. I love this piece. It’s a sort of tone poem, and it tells a traditional story from the Chinese opera, very similar to Romeo and Juliet but in ancient Chinese style.

According to the story, the heroine, Zhu Yingtai, is forced to marry a noble man and she agrees to do so only if the wedding procession passes by the grave of her true love, Liang Shanbo. As the traditional Chinese wedding procession goes by the grave of young Shanbo, the earth shakes and lightning strikes and the earth shallows her up, and she throws herself into the grave of Shanbo. And in the end they are both resurrected as butterflies.

The piece is a symphonic version of a traditional Chinese opera, and it was composed in 1959 by two students at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, Chen Gang and He Zhanhao. It became extremely successful; it is the single most often performed symphonic work ever!”

It appears Shaham’s Greek visit was quite special, and he still has fond memories of it:

“So we played this piece in Thessaloniki. It was a very nice experience and and I have a beautiful memory of it. My whole family was with me, including my daughter who was just one year old at the time.”

We also talked about Greek violinist Leonidas Kavakos, for whom Shaham has a deep appreciation. The two artists also share some common experiences:

“We went to the same music school with Leonidas in New York. He was a little bit older. We live parallel lives so we never see each other, but then around 2 years ago we were in Munich at the same time and we had dinner together. That was very nice. I love his playing.”

Shaham, like Kavakos, has been one of the foremost violinists of his generation and it would be quite an occasion if their parallel routes also intersected in the concert hall – and it would be hard to think of a more fitting location for such a meeting to take place than Greece.

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Max Richter and Daniel Hope in concert (Paradiso, Amsterdam)

From baroque to the present

It is always refreshing to hear a piece of classic stature in a way you would have never imagined possible. Such is the case with Vivaldi Recomposed: The Four Seasons, Max Richter’s fascinating reworking of Vivaldi’s timeless masterpiece (which has been through several creative transformations through the years).

Richter’s imaginative and highly idiosyncratic re-composition of The Four Seasons is indeed a unique achievement. Having infused Vivaldi’s work with postmodern and minimalist elements, Richter has at the same time managed to remain faithful to the music’s innermost essence producing a result of the highest standards, both aesthetically and technically.

Four Seasons in Paradise

On September 10, I was one of the fortunate Amsterdamers who had the opportunity to experience a live performance of the recomposed Four Seasons (for the first time in The Netherlands) by Max Richter, British violinist Daniel Hope and L’arte del mondo orchestra at Paradiso’s magnificent Grote Zaal.

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Given Paradiso’s tradition in bringing together the old the new, one could hardly think of a better venue for the occasion. Following an impressive opening by the vigorous Francesco Tristano and Alice Sara Ott piano duo, Richter and Hope gave a truly exhilarating performance which produced a highly enthusiastic response from the audience.

And rightly so: it is not every day that one gets to enjoy live the combined magic of Vivaldi’s captivating music and Richter’s innovative vision coming to life under the imposing windows of Amsterdam’s most celebrated music venue.

Tales of various Stradivarius

A sound like no other

When it comes to the construction of stringed instruments, no artisan has ever come close to achieving the fame of legendary Italian craftsman Antonio Stradivari  (1644 – 1737). From the approximately 1,000 instruments he made during his lifetime, 650 (including around 500 violins) survive to this day, better known as Stradivarius or simply Strad.

Stradivari

Edgar Bundy, “Antonio Stradivari” (1893)

Along with their unique sound, many Strads also carry with them a fascinating history. Like the 1721 “Lady Blunt” violin (sold in 2011 for £9.8 million), named after Lord Byron’s granddaughter Lady Anne Blunt who owned it for 30 years. Or the 1697 “Molitor” Strad, said to once have been owned by Napoleon himself (it belonged to Gabriel Jean Joseph Molitor, a general in the emperor’s army).

S(tr)ad stories

Given their extraordinary reputation and sky-high value, it is perhaps not surprising that several Strads have gone missing or stolen over the years under obscure circumstances. One such case occurred only last month when Frank Almond, the concertmaster of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, was attacked shortly after a performance by two thieves who disappeared together with his precious Strad.

The stolen violin is known as the “Lipinski” Strad and was built in 1715 (which is during Stradivari’s “golden period”, i.e. 1700- 1725). Its first known owner was no other than Italian composer and virtuoso violinist Giuseppe Tartini (1692–1770), whose Devil’s Trill sonata remains hugely popular to this day.

Another famous Stradivarius violin with a tumultuous past is the “Gibson” Strad, named after its early owner George Alfred Gibson, a prominent English violinist. On February 28, 1936 it was snatched backstage at Carnegie Hall during a recital by Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman, who had left the Strad in his dressing room while performing on his -equally precious- Guarnerius  (a violin made by Stradivari’s contemporary Giuseppe Guarneri). When Huberman went backstage after the show, his “Gibson” Strad was gone.

Bell’s Strads ringing

Some 50 years later and after a deathbed confession by the thief, the “Gibson” Strad was finally recovered and bought by American virtuoso Joshua Bell. Its unique tone can be heard in Romance of the Violin, Bell’s first recording with the long-missing Strad.

Bell’s former violin had also been a Stradivarius. It was the 1732 “Tom Taylor” Strad, which he played in the Oscar-winning score for The Red Violin (1998), an absolute must for violin aficionados. And what a score that was…

125 years of sublime sound

On April 11, 1888 an orchestra of 120 musicians together with a chorus of 500 singers performed works of Wagner, Handel, Bach, and Beethoven in a new building in what was then called Nieuwer-Amstel. It was the beginning of the story of the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam’s famous and much beloved concert hall. And no doubt it’s been a long, fascinating story…

This year, the city’s oldest and grandest classical music venue celebrates its 125th birthday. Due to its remarkable acoustics, the Concertgebouw is considered one of the finest concert halls worldwide – and for good reason. Anyone who’s been fortunate enough to attend a concert in the magnificent Grote Zaal (‘Big Hall’) is familiar with the unique aura and enchanting atmosphere of the venue.

The Concertgebouw in 1902

The Concertgebouw in 1902

Throughout its long -and at times turbulent- history, the Concertgebouw has been host to an astonishing string of world-renowned composers who came along to present premieres of their works, such as Gustav Mahler, Sergei Prokofiev, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel and Béla Bartók.

But by no means is the list confined to the classical genre alone. Legendary figures from the world of popular music have also performed in Amsterdam’s historic venue. Duke Ellington, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Shirley Bassey have all been guests of the Concertgebouw, along with rock giants such as Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.

Personally, I always regard a visit to the Concertgebouw as a kind of pilgrimage to one of the world’s unique music temples. Along with Vienna’s Musikverein or London’s Royal Albert Hall, it ranks as one of the most beautiful concert halls I have ever visited. But more importantly, it is a place where music can be experienced most fully and intensely, and thus I think the word ‘temple’ should not ring too much out of place.

In all my years in Amsterdam, I’ve had the chance to see some truly amazing performances at the Concertgebouw. I was there for a solo piano recital by Daniel Barenboim for the celebration of Chopin’s bicentennial. I saw Earl Wild performing shortly after his ninetieth birthday, attended recitals by some of the world’s greatest pianists (Evgeny Kissin, Alfred Brendel and Grigory Sokolov to name a few) and saw celebrities like Chick Corea, Yo-Yo Ma and Lang Lang showcasing their extraordinary skills and virtuosity on stage.

One of the most-visited concert halls worldwide, the Concertgebouw seems to have not only a glorious past but also a promising future. And I look forward to being part of the experiences it yet has to offer.

Changing of the seasons

Antonio Vivaldi composed The Four Seasons (‘Le quattro stagioni’) in 1723. A work of unmatched artistry and elegance, it would become one of the most popular pieces of baroque music, if not classical music in general. It is also an early example of program music, with the four concertos named after the different seasons and following closely a set of corresponding sonnets.

The Four Seasons is an integral part of the violin repertoire, a work literally hardwired in the brain of every violinist. As might be expected, there is an abundance of recordings: approximately 1,000(!) different recorded versions of The Four Seasons have made their appearance since 1939 by various soloists and orchestras.

My personal favorites include the recording by Yehudi Menuhin and Camerata Lysy Gstaad from 1981, as well as Nigel Kennedy’s popular 1989 recording with the English Chamber Orchestra. Kennedy had studied with Menuhin as a child, and his recording of the The Four Seasons would become one of the best-selling classical works of all time. An eccentric figure, Kennedy has never hesitated to introduce improvisatory elements in his playing, which often makes his live performances electrifying.

Inevitably, some approaches to Vivaldi’s great composition have proved to be more daring and stylistically innovative than others. This is the case with French pianist and composer Jacques Loussier (b. 1934), whose main claim to fame have been his magnificent jazz adaptations of J.S. Bach. Apart from its sheer musicality, the fact that Loussier’s rendition manages to capture the essence of the original work by means of a piano trio alone is impressive.

More recently, British composer Max Richter (b. 1966) offered us a truly astonishing re-composition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons (its premiere was on 31 October 2012). In describing the 1st movement of his Summer, Richter talks about “relentless pulsed music”, adding that perhaps he “was also thinking about John Bonham’s drumming.” He has also referred to the connection between the harpsichord’s sound in the 2nd movement of his Autumn and the style of various pop recordings, including Abbey Road and several albums by the Beach Boys.

The metamorphoses of The Four Seasons throughout the ages show how a baroque masterpiece can survive in modern times through assuming different forms and incorporating elements from such diverse genres as jazz, pop, hard rock and minimalism. Seasons may keep changing, yet Vivaldi’s music remains.

The music of suspended time

Ten minutes. The time it takes to water the plants, do the dishes or read the daily news. At least in the conventional sense of “time.” Because there exists another, parallel dimension where time can be suspended indefinitely and a single moment can signify an eternity. In this dimension, which is no other than the realm of abstract music, ten minutes of “normal” time assume a new importance and are long enough to open a portal to a radically different perception of reality and the cosmos.

Ten minutes is approximately the duration of Spiegel im Spiegel (“mirror in the mirror”), a piece by Estonian composer Arvo Pärt (b. 1935) written in 1978 for piano and violin. If there was ever a musical synonym for absorbed meditation and contemplative stillness, this would have to be it.

Arvo Part

Estonian composer Arvo Pärt

Spiegel im Spiegel is written in the compositional style of tintinnabuli (from the Latin tintinnabulum = bell), a technique invented by Pärt himself and influenced by his mystical experiences with religious music. Although his early works are characterized by a variety of styles ranging from neoclassicism to serialism, his preoccupation and study of choral music, Gregorian chant and the polyphonic music of the Renaissance eventually led Pärt to develop an idiomatic style characterized by simple harmonic structure and rhythmic patterns, alluding to the ringing of bells.

Tintinnabulation”, says Pärt, “is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. In my dark hours, I have the certain feeling that everything outside this one thing has no meaning. The complex and many-faceted only confuses me, and I must search for unity.” Of this type of music, Spiegel im Spiegel is one of the earliest and finest illustrations. It is also one of his most popular works and has been repeatedly used in films, as in Jean-Luc Godard’s In Praise of Love (2001) and Guy Ritchie’s Swept Away (2002).

That a work by Pärt such as Spiegel im Spiegel has been so well-received is a bit of a contradiction. One can hardly think of more introspective, detached and unfashionable music than this. And yet it contains a certain quality that defies time and space, speaking directly to one’s heart and inner self. As Steve Reich, one of the founding fathers of minimalism, once put it: [Pärt’s] music fulfills a deep human need that has nothing to do with fashion.”

It is not just the ten sublime minutes of Spiegel im Spiegel. Much of Pärt’s music is of profound expressivity and unfathomable beauty (his Tabula Rasa is another case in point). The composer once compared his music to “white light which contains all colors”, its division being possible only through a prism, which could be “the spirit of the listener.” At its best, this music indeed offers that which only divine light could ever promise to reveal: a glimpse of the eternal.