Gil Shaham And When The World 'Got Much Smaller, Much Faster' : Deceptive Cadence The star violinist's new multi-year project goes to the heart of a difficult and fascinating era: the 1930s, when dazzle and sorrow commingled musically.

Gil Shaham And When The World 'Got Much Smaller, Much Faster'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

Gil Shaham is one of the virtuoso violinists of his generation. At age 43, as befits a virtuoso, he has recorded and performed the great concertos of the 19th century - the Mendelssohn, the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, the Beethoven.

Well, now for his latest project, Shaham turns the clock forward into the 20th century, to the 1930s. He has used his own recording label, Canary Classics, to release a two-CD set, volume one of 1930s violin concertos. The five pieces include concertos by Alban Berg and Igor Stravinsky and one that Gil Shaham says he fell in love with when he was a kid, Samuel Barber's Violin Concerto.


GIL SHAHAM: You know, I remember being 12 years old, maybe 13, attending a music festival in Aspen, Colorado, and they played this Barber Violin Concerto, and I just heard the - maybe the first minute, that opening melody, and the way it just sort of spins, you know. It's this incredibly beautiful, golden melody and I just thought, I have to learn this piece. I want to learn it and try to play it.


SIEGEL: And it's a piece that I've heard you talk about that you hear the 1930s, you hear the time that Barber is living in here in this concerto.

SHAHAM: Absolutely. You know, I think music has a way of capturing a time. And I remember conductor Hugh Wolff talking about this concerto, and he talked about the final movement. And he says, you can see urban America in the 1930s. You can see the skyscrapers. You can see the bustle in the street and the Jazz Age, and you can hear traffic and car horns.


SIEGEL: How well do you think this concept of the 1930s hangs together here, that - to what degree were these composers composing with some kind of common experience and common ambition?

SHAHAM: Well, you know, to be honest, this project, I think, might have been a little bit of an excuse for me to play music that I love. But it is a very curious coincidence, and many people have asked before what was in the air in the 1930s that all these iconic violin concertos were composed at the same time.

SIEGEL: Well, we just heard a bit of that very expressive and beautiful Barber violin concerto. On the other hand, your album also includes a concerto that Stravinsky wrote with the ambition, I gather, to write in an objective fashion, a music that would have no emotional resonance. And I have to confess, Gil, to my ear, there is no emotional resonance here. It's a very intellectual piece of music.


SHAHAM: I have to say, if anything, I would call it the most joyous of the collection, or of these first five that we recorded. This was the first concerto, in 1931, that sort of began this trend of writing violin concertos. It's fascinating because Maurice Ravel, when approached to compose for the violin, refused. And he said, why should I write a violin concerto? Mendelssohn already wrote one. And Stravinsky didn't hide the fact that he detested soloists and anything to do with instrumental leaders or instrumental stars.

SIEGEL: A bunch of prima donnas, was the sentiment?

SHAHAM: I think that was pretty much what he would say. And in this piece, he went back to the Baroque notion of a concerto grosso, you know, where it's like a staged play, where maybe the solo violinist is the protagonist, but is one amongst many.


SIEGEL: For this project, violin concertos from the 1930s, have you immersed yourself in the 1930s, that is, not just listening to music but also reading writers from the '30s or about the '30s?

SHAHAM: I remember speaking to architects about the 1930s, and they said, look, it was a decade in depression. There was no money for architecture. But you did suddenly have the Empire State Building. You did have the Golden Gate Bridge. And I remember reading sort of a fluffy article about - you know, my favorite kind - about the hundred greatest movies ever made.

And there was a sentence there and - I'm paraphrasing, but roughly it said something like, experts agree that the greatest year in Hollywood history was 1939, producing such iconic pictures as "The Wizard of Oz" and "Gone with the Wind." And, you know, if you think about things like "King Kong," I mean, really, there were many, many icons during that time - Picasso's "Guernica."

It was a fascinating time, and for musicians especially, because there was this explosion of different styles, different techniques. The world got much smaller, much quicker. And for some reason, composers chose to write concertos for my instrument, to write concertos that put, you know, people like me in front of a symphony orchestra.


SHAHAM: We were just speaking about "Guernica," that painting of Picasso's, and I thought of the Britten "Violin Concerto," you know, those ominous war or the drumbeats and the bass...


SHAHAM: ...the shrieking woman, you know, from the top of the painting.


SIEGEL: Benjamin Britten - as you say, Benjamin Britten said that he was inspired to write this piece of music by the atrocity that was "Guernica," really the beginning of using air power to hit civilians, I guess, the terrible...

SHAHAM: Just this horrific reports, horrific reports coming out of Spain. And Benjamin Britten reportedly wanted to enlist, to join the Royal Armed Forces. And it was a conversation he had with composer Aaron Copland. I think Aaron Copland said, many men can fire rifles but how many men can write music like you? And, you know, times of adversity have a way of forcing issues. What is the role of composer in a society? And so Benjamin Britten, who was a young man at the time, wrote this violin concerto.


SIEGEL: Well, Gil Shaham, it's great to talk with you once again. Thank you.

SHAHAM: And you. Thank you.

SIEGEL: Violinist Gil Shaham. His latest album, "1930s Violin Concertos - Volume 1" is scheduled to be released tomorrow.

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