Tuesday, November 8, 2011

concert review: Gil Shaham plays Bach

Dinkelspiel Auditorium is not a very large hall; that's one reason its nickname is "Dinky." So it's surprising how many parking spaces on the Stanford campus its occupants can take up when the hall is full. When I arrived 40 minutes before the start of Gil Shaham's Bach recital on Sunday afternoon, there were still plenty of spaces in the other half of the nearby lot, the part that's reserved for parking stickers on weekdays. But by the time my concert-going companion athenais arrived 20 minutes later, they were gone. Everything was gone. She couldn't find an open non-permit permissible space even on the other side of campus. Nor can I explain why, as I was standing outside the hall with my cell phone on and in my hand, it didn't ring when she called. Fortunately I kept checking it and got the message. We did connect eventually and I directed her to a secret spot nearby where spaces can often be found and, on this occasion, fortunately were. (Am I going to tell you where it is? Maybe not!)

Heart attacks of fear were avoided by my having earlier overheard the hall manager calling for a five-minute hold, which enabled reaching our seats in time. First the concert series director came out and blurbed for a bit. (Blurb: originally a verb, meaning "to talk like a publisher.") Then Shaham himself - shyish, a bit foot-scuffing, doesn't look like one of the world's master violinists - gave a bit of a talk warning us about what he was about to do with the music he'd play. By the time he concluded, it was 20 minutes after the starting gate. But once he put the violin on his shoulder, and, without any hesitation or further ado, began the Preludio from the Third Partita, nobody was going to check their watch again. It was rapturously entrancing, fast as hell - that was what he'd warned us about - but bouncy and vigorous, not at all cold or mechanical. (I'm looking at you, Gidon Kremer.) Wonderful sound, too, on a Strad built when Bach was 14 years old.

Shaham didn't have much to worry about; like many violinists, he's been playing these pieces as private exercises for decades. I was the one who was nervous about reviewing it. I didn't know the Bach solos well, and I sometimes find him too abstruse a composer. There's nowhere for a reviewer, any more than for a performer, to hide behind in a concert like this. It's you facing pure musicianship, and you'd better be able to judge it adequately. So I spent much of my time the last two weeks listening to a variety (and a wide variety, too) of recordings, following and studying the score and making notes all over it, and reading whole books about it, which sounded like this: "in the continuo passage in bars 57-9, the bass is a decorated version of the chromatic countersubject." (Yes, I know what that means.) Not to pass a test on Bach, but to bring myself to a level of comfort and familiarity with the music, so that I could write a review that might be, however analytic in my usual mode, a way to convey what it was like to attend this concert.

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