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Posted by gustav at 11:01PM, Monday, December 03rd, 2001

Previn and Gil Shaham at the BSO

Last night we attended a performance of Vaughan Williams' 5th Symphony and the Beethoven Violin Concerto with Andre Previn conducting and Gil Shaham soloing.

The Vaughan Williams was shockingly good -- shocking because the last time I heard Previn conducting, about a week ago, the orchestra was sloppy and sounded under-rehearsed. Last night was competent, if not sublime. I'm reminded again how filmic the early 20th-Century Brits could be, something more often associated with Americans (Copland, Korngold). This is understated music, deeply conservative though written at a time when Stravinsky was moving away from neoclassicism and the Second Viennese School was breaking down concepts of tonality. The pacing is dignified, a long arch that only really starts to blossom in the middle of the final movement. It's nice to hear a couple very film-score type climaxes without the almost obligatory, and sometimes overbearing, timani roll. The ending seems to me a little abrupt.

The Beethoven was interesting. The last time I heard Shaham, doing Brahms last year at the BSO, I was struck by how little he seemed concerned with placing beats. "What do I have to count for? I'm the soloist." I was amazed at his glowing silvery tone, but didn't have much else positive to say about him.

Last night he at least played in tempo for parts of the concerto -- the orchestra was with him most, though not all, of the time. Beat placement still doesn't seem to be something he takes seriously, which is unfortunate, since this is music that can reveal a lot through subtle inflection of important notes, even in passage work. There were a lot of missed opportunities for rhythmic expression throughout, and a lot of gratuitous tempo changes during solo sections.

His tone was again extraordinary -- warm and mostly clear, projecting well. Something that struck me last night, but not the previous time, was how much he seems to enjoy dynamic contrasts. He gets a little bored with the quiet passages, and the tutti ones where he's just playing along with the orchestra, but takes great pleasure going from quiet to super-loud, where he has no trouble sending his firm, usually meaty sound out over the orchestra. He seemed not to care about the finish of sustained notes -- a failing with many violinists. He could play not quite enough "in the string" for me in the lower registers at times, but overall his sound was very pleasing, even if his on-stage gyrations -- dancing and hopping from right under Previn's baton to the concertmaster's stand, then crouching down for the fast runs -- seemed a little precious, and reminded me of nothing so much as masturbation. The audience, of course, laps this up.

Intonation was decent, if hardly perfect. He nailed every octave, of which the Beethoven has many, which is a feat, even if shifts and passagework could be sour. Shaham and Previn had obvious chemistry -- the conductor seeming to dote on the soloist, and Shaham grinning boastfully after every virtuosic run. At the end, he got an almost uniform standing ovation, though I think this showy style is much better suited to later romantic stuff like Wieniawski or Lalo and doesn't do the Beethoven -- which is difficult and musical but not intrinsically so virtuosic -- justice, not taking it seriously enough, at least not to see that it's not the fast runs that make it a great concerto, but the overall shape, from expressive phrasing and tempi, to the large-scale form blocks. I would have preferred to have Shaham and the soloist from last week's performance with Previn -- Anne Sophie Mutter -- switched. She was solid and deeply musical, with faultless intonation and wonderful control, but not showy and conceited. Unfortunately her wonderful musicianship was wasted on a lousy concerto that seemed to lack any vision -- this was the premiere of Previn's own concerto. He didn't seem to have nearly the rapport with her that he did with this grinning monkey. It's frustrating to see great musical effort wasted on an undeserving work, and the best sound I've ever heard from a live violinist wasted on someone who doesn't see that rhythm is one of the fundamental building blocks of musical expression, at least as important as nice vibrato.

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