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Laurie Niles interview with Gil Shaham: the Mendelssohn Octet

June 2, 2010 at 6:46 PM

The last time I spoke with Gil Shaham, he was playing Sarasate and running from bulls. It sounds like the Sejong Soloists kept Gil on his toes as well.

Shaham recently released Haydn Violin Concertos and the Mendelssohn Octet, a recording that stems from a series of concerts that Shaham and the Sejong Soloists gave in 2009, to mark the bicentennial of Felix Mendelssohn's birth -- and Franz Joseph Haydn's death -- in the year 1809.

Gil Shaham
Image © Christian Steiner

"Playing the Mendelssohn Octet with Sejong is a little bit like going into a room and playing basketball with seven Michael Jordans – they're all considerably younger than I am," Shaham said of touring and recording with the group. "Here I am, with my graying hair, and I'm struggling to keep up!"

This is highly doubtful, from Gil Shaham, 39, who recently recorded an entire album of violin works by the virtuoso composer Pablo de Sarasate, who has won multiple Grammys, won an Avery Fisher Grant and Avery Fisher Award, and plays the 1699 "Countess Polignac" Stradivarius. The man has serious chops.

"I thought I was in shape, but they were really amazing," insisted the humble Shaham. "I found the level of music-making to be inspiring, it was just staggering."

"The story of  Sejong really starts with Mr. (Hyo) Kang," Shaham said. "He was my teacher, and he was also Adele's teacher. (Violinist Adele Anthony is Shaham's wife). About 15 years ago, he founded this group. I think it speaks to the relationship Mr. Kang had with his students, that so many of us came back after school to continue working with him. I think all the violinists in the group are Mr. Kang' students. And he still teaches; he's at Yale and at Juilliard."

"He was a great teacher, and we all loved him and we all still love him," Shaham said. "Mr. Kang has encyclopedic experience with violin and with students, and he's always very thoughtful and very gentle. Sometimes we'd have a whole 60-minute lesson, and he might say two or three sentences."

Such as?

"I remember playing Mendelssohn Concerto for him – not the Octet, but the E minor Concerto, and getting off to kind of a bad start," Shaham said. "He took a few minutes to think about what he was going to say, then he said, 'Gil, you know, at the beginning, there are so many Bs. You really want to make sure that they all match.' (laughs) Intonation, you know. I was out of tune, but that was a very gentle, thoughtful way of saying it."

"He was so careful with what he said, and with the way he was with us," Shaham said, "when he did say something, we paid that much more attention to it."

The Sejong Soloists are a reflection of that thoughtful approach.

"They spend so much time rehearsing. We played this repertoire in the U.S. on tour, and we went to Asia," Shaham said. "Every concert we'd have a rehearsal and a sound check. Everybody was invested, and they spoke at rehearsals. They record rehearsals, and everybody listens to the recordings. It's really like no other experience I've had. We tried some new things in the Mendelssohn."

The Mendelssohn Octet is one of the composer's most popular works, and he wrote it when he was 16. Though the piece was extremely well-received, he revised it quite a lot over his short lifetime. Shaham and the Sejong decided to look at the composer's original manuscript, along with the much-revised score that is commonly used today.

"We're lucky, with the Octet, that there is this very early manuscript," Shaham said. "It's actually online, at the Library of Congress. We thought it was interesting to look at that, just to understand the inspiration behind the piece, the genesis of the work, and the spirit of where it came from. We wanted to get into the head of the 16-year-old who wrote the piece. "

When Mendelssohn wrote the Octet, he was "out to change the world, and he was also out to prove himself," Shaham said. "There had been octets before, but what a feat -- to write eight independent voices like that, and so clearly and so perfectly. Most music we hear -- even the big symphonies that we hear -- don't have eight independent lines going at the same time. Then finally, at the end of the last movement of the Octet, when he comes up with that big double fugue, it's almost like Mozart's Jupiter Symphony."

What is different about the version we use, as opposed to the young Mendelssohn's original version?

"The development is different, the phrases are re-done, some things are made shorter," Shaham said. "Some differences were very clear. The first movement is written in eighth notes (in the original) instead of 16th notes. It's written alla breve, in cut time. And actually the tempo markings are different (in the original), with the exception of the last movement, which is marked slower, all three first movements are marked faster. Instead of 'Allegro Moderato ma con fuoco,' the original first movement is written 'Allegro molto vivace.'"

"Also, he writes notes throughout the piece, 'must be played symphonically,' and 'you must exaggerate forte and piano,'" Shaham said. "It's just like in Mendelssohn's  paintings, where he was very meticulous about the tone of something contrasting with the tone of something else. He writes dotted passages against legato passages, so that eight voices would come out clearly. In some places we played more dotted than we were used to -- but if you look at the score, he puts a dot on every single note!

When it came to actual notes, "I think Beth, our first violist, ended up incorporating some of the changes," Shaham said. "Mostly we stuck with the final version."

Mendelssohn was inspired by passages from literature, including Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and also a particular passage from Goethe's Faust:

Wisps of cloud and mist
Are lit from above
Breeze in the foliage and wind in the reeds
And all is scattered.

In a letter written by his sister, Fanny, they talk about this piece being a brand-new type of music, music that was never written before, particularly the Scherzo. The letter says, "the whole piece is to be played staccato and pianissimo... the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning... one feels so near to the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession... and at the end, ...all has vanished."

Mendelssohn was a painter, a composer, a speaker of multiple languages, a reader of poetry....

"What an amazing mind," Shaham said, "and what an education."

The other works on the recording are two of Haydn's violin concertos, Concerto No. 1 in C major and Concerto No. 4 in G major. 

I tried to remember the last time I heard a Haydn violin concerto. There was the recording of them in 2008 by Augustin Hadelich. And I studied the G major as a kid...

"You hardly ever hear them, right?" Shaham said. "People play the cello concertos all the time. I must confess that I don't tend to play them that often. And I love them! I think they're amazing. I think they are every bit as wonderful and perfect as those cello concertos. I felt really lucky to be able to play them during that centenary year. I've been trying to program them for the next few seasons, too, with some success. They are so beautiful, such perfect music."

The Haydn concertos struck me as being more virtuosic than I expected.

"They were supposed to have been written for the violinist Tomasini," Shaham said. "They must have been very virtuosic players! Haydn's knowledge of the violin is such that he must have been very virtuosic, too. I find them as demanding as the Mozarts, if not more so. But they are so beautiful, and they're like the Mozart in that the violin just sings. The writing is like writing for voice."

What's coming up next for Gil Shaham?

In the fall he'll start performing the Concerto Funebre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann for the first time. In keeping with Shaham's pursuit of violin concertos from the 1930s, this piece was composed in 1939.

"I guess there's some question about this now, but people used to say that Hartmann was the only openly anti-Nazi composer in Germany," Shaham said. "This violin concerto is a very dark piece – obviously – and it's somehow a reaction to the invasion of Czechoslovakia. So it has some Czech themes in it, and some Russian themes as well. If you get a chance, you should listen to it, it's a very strong piece. Just violin and strings."

From Ray Randall
Posted on June 2, 2010 at 9:06 PM

Very interesting, thank you. Enjoyed seeing the original manuscript also.

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