Is there a more sunny and less ego-driven violinist than Israeli-born Gil Shaham? He makes even the most virtuosic music seem so effortless and natural, it’s easy to forget how rare and difficult an achievement that is.
This year he has devoted himself to reviving a handful of under-played 20th-century violin concertos. In mid-March, abetted by David Zinman guest-conducting the New York Philharmonic, Shaham put his whole being into performing the Concerto Funèbre for violin and string orchestra by Karl Amadeus Hartmann. Most violinists would be daunted by this work’s technical demands and try to make the audience see how much sweat is required to play it. Shaham, in contrast, made it sing.
There were not many German composers who behaved honorably in the Nazi period, but Hartmann was one. He chose to maintain public silence so as not to be co-opted by the Nazis. This rarely played violin concerto is an outstanding example of his work.
On March 26, a day after the premiere of the new season of “Mad Men,” a group of New Yorkers packed into Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher hall to soak up another dose of mid-century nostalgia: the New York Philharmonic’s spring gala program “Anywhere I Wander: The Frank Loesser Songbook,” featuring the works of the Jewish composer and lyricist who reigned during the glitzy heyday of the American musical comedy.
It was Marvin Hamlisch who wrote that “everyone is beautiful at the ballet” — no one, to my knowledge, has ever claimed the same about the philharmonic — and yet on this chilly spring evening an air of old-fashioned glamour wafted through the hall. Women wore furs; champagne was sipped. As the orchestra noodled onstage, the trumpeter practicing not a tough lick from Tchaikovsky but rather the swelling, love-struck strains of Loesser’s “Rosemary,” something like titillation rippled through the crowd.
I suspect that certain people like hearing the Philharmonic — in this case led by Ted Sterling with a lineup of Broadway veterans and opera superstar Bryn Terfel — play this sort of thing more than they care to admit. Broadway tunes are what orchestras trot out for outdoor picnics and the pops concerts that make classical music purists wince, and yet it’s significant that the Philharmonic has chosen to feature musical theater composers (Loesser this year, Stephen Sondheim the past two) when the goal is to delight its most generous patrons, who are ostensibly devotees of more serious fare.
Composer Jack Gottlieb, who passed away February 23 at the age of 80, was often asked to speak and write about Leonard Bernstein, the maestro whom he served in his youth as an assistant at the New York Philharmonic. But Gottlieb was one of the finest musicians around in his own right, and in a complete and studied way that is rare among modern prodigies. Jack was a consummate scholar, author, thinker, and composer of artistic, high-level sacred music for the synagogue; he also wrote songs, chamber music, orchestral, choral, and theater pieces, and he could entertain an audience from the piano like no one I have ever seen.
Though Gottlieb’s works were performed and lauded throughout the United States, he felt that he struggled as a composer, always in the shadow of his mentor. In the end, however, his prolific body of work stands on its own, and will no doubt be kept alive by the conductors and musicians who will continue to perform it.
After listening to and viewing a rehearsal for the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s presentation of “In Seven Days,” the 2008 concerto for piano and moving image by Thomas Adès and Tal Rosner being performed January 7 and 8 at Avery Fisher Hall, I was ready to become a creationist.
Not that the piece works to persuade the audience of anything more than to pay attention to its rich array of sounds and imagery. Swept up from the tohu-bohu of unruly waves, the audience is buffeted by the composer’s rich reverberations and the videographer’s eye-popping visuals, uncertain whether the aural propels the visual or vice versa. And therein lies the piece’s power, and the audience’s uncanny feeling of participating in the act of creation.
While Hanukkah preparations and aftermath can overshadow every other human activity in December, ‘tis also the season for classical concerts, especially although by no means exclusively, in the New York area. These can include much Yiddishkayt, despite the seeming omnipresence of Handel’s “Messiah.”
Mahler-lovers will not want to miss the much-loved British conductor Sir Colin Davis leading the New York Philharmonic in performances on December 2, 4, and 7 of Mahler’s orchestral songs, “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (The Youth’s Magic Horn). Although born in 1927, Sir Colin still conducts with a balletic grace which vivifies everything he interprets.
Fans of modern music may already know the accomplished young composer, pianist, and conductor Thomas Adès. Born in London in 1971 of Syrian Jewish ancestry, Adès’s highly theatrical, sometimes quite humorous imagination is uncommon among composers of his generation.
In rare interviews, Adès reveals the gravity and sobriety of a master of ironic double meanings. The title of his 2007 orchestral work “Tevot,” which is being released by EMI Classics on March 23, refers to the Hebrew word for “arks” but also “bars in a piece of music.” Adès told The Guardian that “Tevot” captures the concept of the “ship of the world,” adding: “Watching the orchestra play ‘Tevot’ feels a bit like watching people on a boat, as the music’s being thrown from one side of the orchestra and smashing into the other side, almost as if it’s going to capsize.”
Revealing the secret behind a magic trick is usually not a good thing, but when it comes to real artistry, uncovering the nitty-gritty details of creation can often deepen our appreciation of an artist’s genius. In the case of Leonard Bernstein, a few recent and forthcoming releases help pull back the curtain on the composer and conductor’s creative methods.
The first of these, and the subject of a recent New York Times article by Allan Kozinn, is the release on DVD of seven appearances by Bernstein on the “Omnibus” TV series that ran from 1952 to 1961. The program “made the details of music and music making accessible, usually without dumbing down, to a broad audience,” Kozinn writes.