Wednesday, August 7, 2013


Blossom Music Center
August 3

Bringing fresh energy to a well-worn classic.

Summer is traditionally the time for lightweight programs and performers. It’s also the preferred time to roll out old chestnuts like Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, a seminal work that has suffered from overexposure. It takes a world-class artist to pump new life into the piece, and offer a reminder of why it has become one of the world’s most popular concertos.

Gil Shaham did that and more in his appearance with the Cleveland Orchestra on Saturday night. A virtuoso player who well deserves the 1699 Stradivarius tucked under his chin, Shaham is the rare violinist who combines impeccable technique with fluent expression. He can step up to the challenge of high-volume major works like the Tchaikovsky concerto without missing a note, or drop back to understated chamber music recitals and personal projects like Nigunum, a collection of Hebrew folk melodies recently recorded with his sister, pianist Orli Shaham. It all sounds equally alive and accomplished.

With visiting Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits at the podium, Shaham strode onto the Blossom stage dapper and smiling as usual, and set a lively pace from the opening notes of the concerto. Along with a zesty brio, he played with crystal clarity and seamless elegance, making the complicated filigrees and daunting cadenzas look easy. And his control was breathtaking, particularly in the fine lines of the second movement, which he evoked with the grace and delicacy of raindrops on a pond.

Ultimately, what marks the very best players is their mastery of the music. It’s one thing to play a piece. It’s quite another to own it in the way that Shaham did, showing a deep understanding of the score by adding grace notes and other flourishes that put a personal stamp on it without obscuring any of Tchaikovsky’s original intent. Most violinists do well just to keep up with the impossible demands of the part; Shaham nurtures it, finding gentle nuances in the tender melodic passages and blazing through the complex runs.

Shaham also has a fine sense of how to present a piece, down to small details like angling his violin to achieve the right sonic effect. He prowled the stage like a jazz player, working off different sections of the orchestra and standing tall for solos next to the podium, where he could stay locked in with the conductor. His enthusiasm was evident in playful body English and dance steps – at one point, he literally pounced on a new phrase.

With a slice of Bach’s Partita No. 3 for an encore, Shaham capped the single best performance this critic has seen at Blossom this year. No one else has come close to matching his technical brilliance, rapport with the orchestra and generosity of spirit. It was an exhilarating experience, and a reminder of how even a well-worn piece can sound fresh in the right hands.

Karabits provided a smart orchestral backdrop for Shaham, modulating the sound and drawing sonorities out of the horns and woodwinds that contrasted nicely with the violin. On the other pieces, however, he did not fare as well.

The opening work, Glinka’s energetic Overture to Rusian and Ludmila, had plenty of pep and good-natured gusto. But the sound was one-dimensional, thick in the middle and lacking definition on the high and low ends. The closing Symphony No. 5 by Prokofiev had some of the same problems, which was unfortunate. A work of dazzling depth and dimension, it came out like sausage, all bunched together in a long, linear stream.

Generally speaking, the fewer instruments playing, the better the music sounded. Karabits got some crisp work out of the percussion section and big sounds from the horns, but overall the symphony never caught fire, only occasionally revealing its full color and depth.

Prokofiev should be in Karabits’ wheelhouse, so the poor showing was a disappointment. The conductor’s intelligence and ability are clear. But if this appearance was an accurate indication, he’s not quite ready to lead a world-class orchestra.

For more on Kirill Karabits:

For more on Gil Shaham:

And Shaham’s label, Canary Classics:

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