As Gil Shaham rushed onto the stage Thursday night at Symphony Hall, a slightly ground down audience perked up at the sight of his violin, young concertgoers screaming and whooping as if Beyoncé had entered. Shaham looked positively delighted to be standing next to the BSO and Andris Nelsons once again, a bright smile never once leaving his face.
Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto certainly stands as a dusty old crowd pleaser, but Shaham managed to transform it into a thrilling and joyful revival. With phrasing calculated and smart, and technique impeccable, he devised a plan for each motive, slur, and articulation.
Furrowing his brow as his violin soared, Shaham only looked up when his phrases ended, though it had very little bearing on his communication with the BSO. Rather than standing slightly ahead of the rest of the ensemble as most soloists traditionally try (almost head on with the conductor), Shaham chose to place himself practically within the orchestra. In a few instances, he almost head butted Nelsons’s hip as he played, once even prompting a surprised jump from the conductor. As every phrase ended, one thing stayed consistent: Shaham tore himself away from his violin, grinning widely, ecstatically, up at Nelsons, continuing his facial dialogue with the orchestra, animatedly bouncing on his knees. Occasionally, a surprised beam would find its way to Shaham’s lips at a peaked musical idea, following along with the energy on the stage.
Shaham proved the rest of the ensemble to be merely accompaniment, overtaking the room as he dove into the cadenza in the Allegro moderato. He began very matter-of-fact; his tongue-in-cheek statement jumped into clever anecdotes and eventually burst into romantic eruptions with flawless savvy. By the end of the first movement, Gil Shaham had stolen the night.
Comically, as the first movement halted, the entire hall exploded in applause and a standing ovation. Many were so transfixed by Shaham’s effortless charm that they had completely forgotten the two movements yet to come.
The Canzonetta brought pianissimos that dipped so soft that the orchestra struggled to surpass Shaham’s quiet. He waxed poetically to himself, each phrase more thoughtful than the last. The Finale offered powerful pizzicatos from the strings section and astute counterpoint between horns and soloist, demonstrating a soft nudge forward in the contrapuntal inner voices, bringing new clarity to old ideas.
As the Finale broke into an Allegro vivacissimo, Shaham raced against the orchestra, daring them to go just a tiny bit faster with every given motive. Clear that the soloist would win the dash, the ensemble wheezed along, though the woodwinds inter-wove charming voices in the penultimate section, for once matching Shaham’s brilliance. As the piece excitedly rushed to a close, Shaham looked up at Nelsons with the sincerest admiration, as if the genius that he had poured out onto the stage had something to do with the conductor. As an encore, Shaham played a spirited Bach’s Gavotte from Partita No. 3 in E Minor, demonstrating the most wonderful Baroque stomping dance that led into stomps, fist pumps, and shouts from the audience.
Moler, Arlene Sierra’s nine-minute composition from 2012, which opened the concert, signified the uncomfortable grinding of teeth while sleeping, presumably during a nightmare. Leering ominously over the ensemble, Nelsons led the group into a dental-gnashing dreamscape, full of fraught ideas, dream-like but not at all restful. Nevertheless, the nervous number exhibited a sophisticated layering of ideas across all instrumental sections.
After the intermission the ensemble brought Tchaikovsky’s student Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, which Nelsons began with a cocked hip, casually grabbing the edge of the podium as his baton tipped upwards. The entire gesture felt offhanded and unplanned until his shoulders lurked upwards, naturally falling into the deeply late romantic style. The BSO’s ideas were imaginative, melodies soaring turbulently.
At moments, it felt as though Nelsons were about to slouch back into his oddly casual demeanor, staring at the horns section and making the smallest motions as the rest of the orchestra surged around him. However, an inner voice emerged from the horns, philosophically luminous in comparison to the group’s drastically different idea. Nelson’s sophisticated interpretation rewarded anticipation in unexpected areas.
Although Rachmaninov enchanted and Sierra worried, Shaham mutated Tchaikovsky’s old gem into something inspired, proving all the while that clever ideas always come across better dished in a dapper grin.
Rachael Fuller is an administrator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studied piano and music theory. By night, she is a practicing musicologist and concert enthusiast.