IDAGIO Meets ... Gil Shaham

Ahead of his latest appearance in IDAGIO's Global Concert Hall, the violinist discusses Beethoven, collaboration with The Knights, and how to connect with audiences during the pandemic.

© Chris Lee

On April 17, Gil Shaham appears in the Global Concert Hall for the second time, in a concert – generously sponsored by Cynthia and Oliver Curme – from the Fraser Performance Studio at GBH in Boston. Ahead of the concert, in which he performs new arrangement of Beethoven's Violin Concerto with The Knights, he discusses the piece, his newest album, working with the Knights and how he's kept busy during lockdown.

Both your newest album and your upcoming streamed concert feature Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Can you say something about your relationship to this work?

I remember first hearing it when I was young, and I just loved it and I listened to it over and over and over again. And I have this story of being on stage in Indianapolis once, playing Beethoven's Violin Concerto. Before I play there's this big tutti, and the orchestra plays its long melody, and then they turn it into the minor,: they just spin that melody. And I remember there was this young woman there, maybe 12 or 13 years old, and just the expression on her face just seemed to say: "This is the most beautiful melody I've ever heard!" And that's right; that's what this music is. This music is a revelation… it's transformation… it changes people's lives.

The new album features Beethoven's concerto alongside Brahms's. You already made a famous recording the Brahms two decades ago, but never recorded the Beethoven until now. Why has it taken so long?

I've always loved the Beethoven. It's one of those great masterpieces. But it didn't play it much until relatively late. Maybe I just had this sense that everybody feels so strongly about it – and I do too! – and how it should be performed. But I made a concerted effort (no pun intended) to start playing it in public, because I thought: If I don't do it now, it will never actually feel more comfortable. And then I discovered what so many others before and since have known: that it's just the greatest joy. But although I've been playing it for a few decades now, I guess somehow the opportunity to record it just never really came up. 

And how did the collaboration with The Knights on this project come about?

I've always loved their work and working with them. My wife, Adele Anthony, is also violinist, and we were at school together with Colin [Jacobsen], and through him we met Eric, who then was just his cellist brother, but who's now a very successful conductor and music director of The Knights. Twelve years ago, we did a very small project in a night club in New York, and later we recorded a Prokofiev Violin Concerto. During that time we also toured in the States, and I remember hearing them play an "Eroica" Symphony in Chicago, and I just loved it. After that concert I spoke to Eric backstage and said: "How about doing the Beethoven 'Single'" – because he's a cellist and we always talk about the Beethoven Triple Concerto or the Beethoven Single Concerto. And so that's how that came about.   

The concert will feature a new chamber arrangement of the concerto…

Yes, originally our plan was to do the full orchestra, and then, as we came closer to the date, it became clear that the Covid regulations would not allow us to do that. So it was a case of necessity being the mother of invention. Colin mentioned Hummel and his arrangements or the overtures and symphonies, and we thought: let's try and do that with the violin concerto. It quickly became clear that we wanted to have timpani as well, since they play such a prominent part in this piece, and then we rehearsed and came up with ideas throughout.

There was something Colin said, which I thought was very nice: that the idea during Hummel's time was that you could take a Beethoven symphony and put it in your living room. And today, in the age of Zoom technology and IDAGIO technology, it's very similar: you take a Beethoven symphony – or in this case concerto – and put it in your living room! 

You've done quite a lot of streamed concerts – how different do you find it? 

I found it very interesting, because you're often just in an empty room. I'd done broadcast concerts and recorded concerts in the past, but somehow this still feels different. And I remember the first kind of streamed concert that I did. I was playing the Tchaikovsky Méditation and we were alone in this concert hall up in Bard College with cameras and mikes. And I thought: you know, maybe there's someone out there who's with us, we're sharing a moment with someone who could be in Israel, in South America or in Asia. Here we are in Upstate New York and we're actually experiencing the moment together with people on the other side of the planet. It feels like kind of a miracle. 

What do you hope people will take away from the concert on April 17? 

I always say our job is like the job of an actor: we take the ideal that's on the page and then we try to bring it to life for our listeners and our audience. So my hope is simply that we bring something of the message of Beethoven, something of the spirit of the Beethoven violin concerto that will touch people out there, wherever they are in the world.

"Gil Shaham and The Knights Play Beethoven" streams in the Global Concert Hall on April 17 and is available on-demand until May 8 – buy tickets here. Gil Shaham's new album is out now.

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