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Gil Shaham and The Philadelphians

The Philadelphia Orchestra

Verizon Hall, Philadelphia

April 28-30, 2022

Gil Shaham, leader & violin

Gil Shaham (photo Chris Lee)

Violinist Gil Shaham fronted the Philadelphia Orchestra, as ‘Leader and soloist’ in a string orchestra program of works by Fritz Kreisler, Joseph Bologne and Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons.‘ A herculean task, and yet Shaham didn’t run out of steam, in the zone-sans podium-with the full strings in a semi-circle around him. Because his body was busy with his violin, in lieu of the typical maestro choreography, Shaham ‘leading’ everything with a fascinatingly, minimalist physicality. (More on that in a moment).

On Fritz Kreisler’s Praeludium & Allego, Shaham sounding rushed on the first bars, deliberately perhaps, for when he reached the first notes of Kreisler’s central theme, his rich soulful tone engulfed the concert hall, and was a sumptuous warm up to the orchestra’s legendary strings.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s musical director Yannick Nezet-Seguin has been correcting previous sins of omission and performing more repertory by composers of color. In this concert, Shaham soloing on a long-overlooked masterpieces of 18th century, by Joseph Boulogne Chevalier St. Georges’ Violin Concerto no. 9 for this concert.

Born around 1745, the son of Nanon, an enslaved woman in colonialized Caribbean islands and a French aristocrat plantation owner. Mother and son escaped to France and Boulonge was raised among France nobility. Joseph excelled at fencing and a gifted violinist and composter. He was subjected to racism, along the way, other musicians refused to collaborate with him. when he was orchestrating his own works, because he was biracial, meanwhile, he was a favorite at the court of Marie Antoinette.

 The Chevalier’s Violin Concerto is in its mastery of forms and in that pocket of baroque-classical forward transitional era. St. George, and his soon to be contemporary Mozart, compositionally prescient, exploring ideas of his own. The glittering courtly structure on the first movement is prelude to the somber symphonic expressionism of the 2nd movement. The Chevalier

The finale of the Vivaldi’s ‘The Four Seasons’ performed with such rigor by the Philadelphians, still evokes a mystique that has remained undimmed in the canon of essential world music. It is earthy and ethereal, narrative and abstract, and for string musicians, foundational and challenging repertory. Each Season a ripe sonata form followed by musical depictions of weather furies, flora, fauna and the musical contemplations of the seasons of life.

Gil Shaham commanded throughout, but never eclipsed the rest of the players. This was orchestrated for a large chamber orchestra and the balance, precision and ensemble energy with Shaham was exquisite. Aside from the warm smile and Shaham was a study in maestro-maneuvers, his back to the musicians. At various times, inching toward the individual musicians at key moments of interplay with the principals up front, otherwise signaling tempos or phrasing with tilts of his head, or craning his body as he fiddled, with very expressive eyebrows signaling sonic contours.

Among the outstanding soloists- principal violinist David Kim, Christine Lin and William Polk (2nd & 3rd violin) and principal cellist Ni-Ye Ni, harpsichordist Avi Stein brilliant in the keyboard counterpoint and those eerily dissonant sustained notes.

This ensemble crystalized every musical idea of this perpetual masterpiece, from Vivaldi’s earthy rhythmic drive to the perpetual motion of baroque form, nothing was diluted.