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SYMPHONY REVIEW
Mastercard Performance Series / Friday, March 27, 2015
Gil Shaham, violin

Gil Shaham playing Bach beneath slow-motion movie. Photo K. Loken

FASTER THAN A SPEEDING BULLET

by Steve Osborn
Friday, March 27, 2015

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird. It's a plane. It's Gil Shaham-man, the superhuman violinist! He's faster than a speeding bullet!

If you long to zoom around a speedway at 200-plus miles per hour but can't afford a race car, Gil Shaham can replicate the experience for you on his violin. In his March 27 performance at Weill Hall Shaham mounted a lightning-fast assault on Bach's sonatas and partitas for unaccompanied violin. The lightning was clearly visible to anyone trying to keep track of his fingers and bow, but the thunder was only intermittent.

How fast did Shaham play? A friend timed the famous Chaconne in Partita No. 2 at just over 11 minutes. In contrast, the Hilary Hahn recording of the Chaconne clocks in at just under 18, and Heifetz under 14. Entire sonatas seemed to zip by in the flicker of an eyelid.

As highway patrol officers often intone: "Hey, buddy, where's the fire?" Skeptics might say that Shaham was hurtling through Bach so he could finish the pieces in under two hours (the time he allots in his program notes) and get the audience home at a reasonable hour. As he explains in the notes, however, "I believe composers often think of violin writing as rapid and brilliant ... so my feeling for the general tempos of this music is faster. It swings better." Whether or not the music swung better is a judgment call, but the factual consequences of all that speed were rampant: The intonation suffered; the bowing was often ragged and scratchy; and the notes themselves were imprisoned in a hurtling cannonball.

Shaham added the further indignity of projecting slow-motion movies behind him that seemed disconnected with the music.

According to the program notes, the music-movie combo was the brainchild of filmmaker David Michalek, who specializes in ultra-slow-motion movies of minimal actions, such as a woman lifting her arms. What normally takes a few seconds becomes a matter of minutes — the reverse of the Shaham approach. Michalek explains that he watched one of these movies (of two boys) while listening to a Bach unaccompanied cello suite. For him, the music "seemed to be engaging in a subtle kind of dialogue with the boys' faces."

Maybe the cello suites are different, but the video’s dialogue with the violin sonatas and partitas was so subtle that it disappeared. To be sure, the movies often showed dancers, and the partitas are filled with dances, but the connection ends there. The most jarring disconnect was in the Chaconne movie, which showed a Japanese woman in a wing-like kimono waving two fans. Of all the things you might imagine while listening to this transcendent piece of music, kimonos would seem to be at the bottom of the list.

Fortunately, it was easy to ignore the movies and focus on Shaham, who appeared blissfully relaxed while tearing through the music at breakneck speed. He played while standing on a black area rug that he crossed and recrossed as the spirit moved him. In some passages, he turned sideways and leaned forward on one leg, much in the manner of rock guitarists. In others he planted his feet on the ground as if to aid his bow speed.

When Shaham slowed down, the results were often magnificent. His dynamics, particularly his pianissimos, drew rapt attention from the audience, and his fortissimos rang out. What didn't ring out were the rest of the notes, which struggled to emerge from the blur of sound. To be sure, the blazing tempi made sense at times, occasionally offering a revelatory experience for listeners accustomed to more languorous performances; but the rest was an inscrutable puzzle.

As with the lack of connection between the movies and the music, Shaham's connection with Bach was hard to discern. Shaham may feel that the music swings better when it's faster, or when it's illustrated, but judging from this performance, the evidence is thin.

Reprinted by permission of San Francisco Classical Voice.