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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Milwaukee Treated to Shaham's Exuberant Joy

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What I like most about violinist Gil Shaham—besides his captivating playing—is the bubbling, exuberant joy in music-making. He can barely contain his excitement on stage, physically moving around more than any other soloist, periodically flashing a broadly sincere smile.

Shaham offered up a gem in his appearance last weekend with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra: the intriguing 1939 concerto by William Walton. The lightness of spirit in this British romantic music is a perfect match for Shaham's personality. He sailed through virtuoso technical demands with clean precision, always fluid and easy, with sweetness in the sound. As is true in all his performances, Shaham seems to derive supreme satisfaction in collaborating with conductor and orchestra. The Saturday evening audience reaction to the concerto was unusually enthusiastic, making one wonder why this crowd-pleaser is not more often programmed. Shaham's encore, a Bach movement for solo violin, was charmingly played with a light and graceful touch.

British music of the 1930s was a theme of the first half, beginning with Frederick Delius' enchanting The Walk to the Paradise Garden. Edo de Waart kept it moving insistently, perhaps a little more swiftly than ideal for my tastes through the biggest climax (which briefly brings Gershwin to mind). But the orchestra sounded better than good. When I was young I thought that if the angels had an orchestra, this is music that would welcome a weary human into heaven. Hearing it again, I still think that.

De Waart's relentless priority of clarity and transparency gives freshness to romantic music. Under his guidance it was as if I was hearing Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique for the first time, remarkable considering that the last time this came around at MSO (in 2008) I remember feeling that I was tired of this warhorse and never wanted to hear it again. Under de Waart's discipline the orchestra sounded as if it had been freed to play this wonderfully eccentric piece beautifully, which it certainly did. I especially loved de Waart's ending, driving to a final chord that came as a burst of surprise.