Shaham’s Bach mesmerizes despite distracting visuals

November 2, 2015 at 11:58 am

By Aaron Keebaugh

Gil Shaham performed music of Bach Sunday at Jordan Hall for the Celebrity Series.

Gil Shaham performed music of Bach Sunday at the Sanders Theatre for the Celebrity Series.

When visual artist David Michalek began reading about Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for solo violin, he discovered something interesting. He came upon the research of Helga Thoene, who argued that the works, when organized in pairs and in sequence, reflect, through their quotations of hidden chorale tunes, underlining religious themes, specifically the important feasts of the Christian year. 

Michalek, after being tapped by violinist Gil Shaham to create a visual component for live performances of the Sonatas and Partitas, drew upon Thoene’s work to create slow motion films that illustrate birth, death, and rebirth—reflecting Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost—to go with each pair of works. “While I didn’t want to manifest these references directly,” Michalek stated in his program note for the project, “I did use basic themes of birth, death, and rebirth as blueprints or inspirations for the creation of images.” 

Sunday afternoon at Sanders Theatre, Gil Shaham performed his and Michalek’s vision with a complete cycle of the Sonatas and Partitas in a concert presented by the Celebrity Series. 

Productions such as this one can sometimes result in successful synesthetic experiences, but unfortunately Sunday’s production proved a mixed bag. The musical presentation, given Shaham’s masterful performance, was astounding, while the films left one wondering how it all fit together.

Michalek’s work has been making rounds in publications such as the New Yorker and Vanity Fair as well as in solo exhibitions at Yale, around New York City, and in Salzburg and Paris. In addition, he has collaborated with Peter Sellars on Kafka Fragments and St. François d’Assise for the stage. 

Michalek’s slow-motion films were promising in the beginning, with slow-moving shots of a baby that pan to a mother snuggling with her daughter. Other movements were accompanied by dancers twirling about in space, their movements seeming to echo Shaham’s flowing lines. But even by the end of the first of the concert’s three hours, the pictures became numbing, providing more of a distraction than an enhancement to Shaham’s performance. 

Independently, some of the films have the poignancy of poetry. One of the more charming images, set to the Loure from the E major Partita, involved two children playing violins, each casting a glance at one another mid motion. Another is the seemingly still-life shot of flowers in a vase that is slowly knocked over by pouring water, an image that is reversed in the Gigue from the E major Partita, which closed the program.

But the biggest problem with the films is that they don’t flow in any logical form or narrative arc. There are also long stretches of music where no film is shown at all, and sometimes the images leave one puzzled. For the Andante of the A minor Sonata, we see a woman holding a card, slowly turned her head with a distant expression on her face. And that’s about it. How does this image reflect Bach’s music, or, more appropriately, Michalek’s interpretation of them?

What the Michalek film missed in flow and direction was more than remedied in Shaham’s performance. 

Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas are some of the most demanding music in the violin repertoire and have long been the testing ground for many a performer. Shaham is one of the finest violinists on the scene today and is no stranger to the music, having recently released his own recording of the complete set.

Shaham’s interpretation of the works was mesmerizing in its technical display and affecting in its musical expression. His playing was nimble and featured brisk tempos, no doubt drawn from his use of Baroque-era bow and gut strings as well as from his research into performance practices of the era.

His violin sounded with smooth and sweet tone, which brought warm resonance to the music. Shaham, moreover, has a knack for the finding the silky turns of phrase in Bach’s quicksilver writing for the instrument. He leaned into the notes in the quick movements of the B minor Partita to group them into longer phrases. The fugues in the Sonatas were handled with energy and precision, Shaham giving the lines a sense of momentum and urgency.

In the slow movements, such as the luminous Sarabandes of the B minor and D minor Partitas, his approach was even more pronounced as he drew out the quadruple stops slowly, two notes at a time. His playing of the Chaconne from the D minor Partita was searching, powerful, and colorfully shaded, an effect that brought swift applause from the audience.

The dance music of the Partitas was played with characteristic grace and flair. The Corrente of the B minor Partita was light footed, and the quick movement that followed took off at a furious pace, with Shaham building the phrases into lines of radiant intensity. The Allemandes of the B minor and D minor Partitas moved with gentle tug and sway to the tempo.

Rapturous applause brought Shaham back to the stage three times for bows. After nearly three hours of brilliantly playing some of the most difficult music in the repertoire, he deserved the praise.

The next Celebrity Series event will feature Rob Kapilow and soprano Emily Albrink in “What Makes it Great?,” an exploration of American Broadway and art songs 8 p.m. Friday at Jordan Hall. celebrityseries.org; 617-482-6661

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