Violinist, symphony make magic
by Christopher Key
In reviewing the Whatcom Symphony Orchestra’s first concert with new Artistic Director Yaniv Attar last month, my colleague John French detected some probably understandable opening night jitters. Maestro Attar apparently conjured some powerful medicine since then because the orchestra was in top form today. They might have been helped a bit by a sensational performance from violinist Gil Shaham, but the energy level was sufficient to light Las Vegas, both from the orchestra and the audience.
Felix Mendelssohn managed to do quite a bit of traveling in his tragically short life and one of the places that enchanted him was Scotland. According to Dr. Ed Rutschman’s always-superb program notes, the composer visited one of the whiskey distilleries for which the country is justly famous. Perhaps that accounts for his lovely Hebrides Overture, op. 26. He captures all the beauty and serenity of the locale while managing to overlook the occasionally bleak climate. The orchestra was as smooth as single-malt even during some rather furious string passages.
Guest artist Gil Shaham is considered to be among the top few violinists in the world and has a fascinating background. He was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, that most middle-American of small cities. At age seven, he moved to Israel with his parents and began his music studies. He made his debut at the tender age of 10 with the Jerusalem Symphony and Israel Philharmonic, then continued his studies in Aspen and at Juilliard.
Since then, he has won multiple Grammys along with numerous other awards and now has his own record label. Perhaps his most noticeable trait while performing is that he smiles. A lot. How often do you see a superstar classical musician who looks like he’s having more fun than should be strictly legal? Shaham seemed a bit awkward when he first came onstage, but then the orchestra did something he liked and his grin lit up the Mount Baker Theater.
His performance of Johannes Brahms’ beloved Violin Concerto in D major, op. 77 also lit up the place to the point where the Fire Marshal must have been nervous. Even the most sophisticated audiences usually break into applause at the end of the first movement because it sounds just like the end of a symphony. Today was no exception and there were even people on their feet. Understandably so, but Maestro Attar wisely gave the audience no chance to break etiquette after the second movement by charging right into the soaring third. Shaham doesn’t need to resort to the physical theatrics of some of his colleagues and prefers to let his fingers do the talking. They do so most eloquently. The thunderous standing ovation at the end went on so long that the MBT techs brought up the lights to signal intermission. The audience was having none of it and kept roaring until Shaham came out for an encore.
If there was anyone left who was not thoroughly enchanted by Shaham, the second half began with an interview conducted by National Public Radio. The violin virtuoso then proved to be not only utterly charming, but something of a comic. Asked about his Stradivarius instrument, he said, “It’s 1699. Not including tax. I’ve now used that line 1699 times.”
An act like that is damn near impossible to follow, but the orchestra rose to the challenge with a terrific performance of Robert Schumann’s Symphony No. 4 in D minor, op. 120. Concertmaster Grant Donellan had the daunting task of performing some solos in the second movement and gave no indication that he was overwhelmed by following a performance like Shaham’s. The rhythmic and dynamic characteristics of this work make it very easy for some of the more intense passages to become muddy. Didn’t happen. The orchestra was as crisp as a ginger snap and won its own well-deserved standing O.
The Mount Baker Theatre was sold out today and that should motivate you to get your tickets well in advance for the Holiday Concert on December 8. That sugar plum will feature the Bellingham Chamber Chorale under the direction of Ryan Smit and the Bellingham Children’s Choir led by David Post. For concert details, see the WSO website. Tickets can be purchased by calling the Mount Baker Theatre box office at (360) 734-6080 or by ordering online.
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