Interview with Gil Shaham: Bright Sheng's Violin Concerto; John Williams, Korngold and more

October 1, 2013, 2:56 PM · Composer Bright Sheng never forgot his first impression of watching violinist Gil Shaham perform the Mendelssohn Concerto at an outdoor concert many years ago:

"The notes were just flying off in the air -- that image was just incredibly vivid and strong," Bright said.

In that spirit, the highly accomplished Chinese-born composer has written a violin concerto called "Let Fly," which Gil Shaham will premiere this weekend with the Detroit Symphony, with Leonard Slatkin conducting. (And mark your calendar, it will be webcast live at 3 p.m. EDT this Sunday). The work was co-commissioned by the Detroit Symphony, the BBC Symphony Orchestra in London and the Singapore Symphony. Gil will play the work with all three orchestras this season.

Both Gil Shaham and Bright Sheng spoke with me last week about the new violin concerto and their collaboration. Gil also spoke to me about some of the other works he'll be playing this year, including the John Williams Violin Concerto and the piece he helped to popularize with his 1990s recording of it, the Korngold Concerto.

Gil Shaham
Image © Christian Steiner

Back to the premiere in Detroit, Gil and Bright described the concerto as ranging in character from the kind of music sung from mountaintops to the simple rhymes sung to a small child. They also mentioned what sounds like a rather unique passage of natural harmonics!

"I love the piece," Gil told me last week by phone. "It's in one movement, but it goes through basically three traditional movements. And the writing is very original for violin; there's a very effective passage in the second movement, where the violin accompanies the tune in the orchestra with just harmonics, all harmonics on the violin."

The first movement begins with a melody that has the feeling of a Chinese "Flying Song" -- which also plays into the title of the concerto, he said. What is a Chinese "Flying Song"? Well, here is one example that composer and violinist mentioned, and here's another example.

"There is a tradition in some mountainous regions in China of these very loud songs," Gil said. "It's different from Swiss yodeling, but it's similar in some ways." Tradition has it that lovers who were separated by distance would use this kind of song to communicate over mountaintops. "One partner would be on top of this mountain, and he'll sing this loud song, and then the other phrase will be returned from the other mountaintop," Gil said. "There is a long and ancient tradition of these 'Flying Songs.'"

"I grew up in China, with all these songs in my head," Bright said. "The 'Flying Song' is a genre of folk singing in the southern part of China, mostly in the minority ethnic groups. Actually I didn't use much of the material, per se, but the image of singing in the open fields, singing in the mountains, singing outdoors with the kind of sound that projects -- that was kind of the image that I thought of, when Gil first asked for something to listen to."

Another inspiration for the piece is a child rhyme that Bright wrote in 2010 for his then-newborn daughter, Fayfay, whose name is a homonym for "to fly" in Chinese. "She recognizes it to this day, whenever I play it," Bright said. This simple tune appears in parts of the concerto; "when it comes, it's obvious, it kind of takes over, and just disappears again," Bright said.

"Then the last movement is a kind of folk-based dance," Gil said. "It has double stops and accents and the odd-metered bar, the 5/8 and the 7/8, every once in a while. If I had to describe the whole concerto, very quickly, I would say it's a little bit like Bartok meets Chinese folk music tradition."

Though Bright is very familiar with the violin, having composed for violin and conducted for many years, he is not a violinist himself.

"Violin is a fantastic instrument, as you know, and especially when it's played the way Gil plays it, Bright said. "You have everything: you have power, you have very lyrical and sweet sound. I tried to explore that."

"Gil helped me a great deal after I finished (writing the piece)," Bright said. "My objective, as a composer, is to write a piece that sounds very virtuosic but is not so hard to play. That's very hard; even if you play the instrument. Unless you're a virtuoso like Gil, you never get that level." History gives us many examples of famous violin concerti that were written by a composer, with help from a virtuoso violinist. "I strongly believe that that kind of collaboration is really crucial for the piece to be alive and to take off."

Gil Shaham and Bright Sheng
Gil Shaham and Bright Sheng

For example, Joachim helped Brahms with his violin concerto. "We don't know how much was Joachim and how much was Brahms, in terms of the facility, and realizing it. And sometimes we don't know musically, as well."

Bright said that he asked Gil to help him with the playability of the piece. "We went through a lot," Bright said. "I told Gil, I know you can play these passages, but any suggestions you can make for it to sound or play more easily, that would be great. He made quite a few, and it was always for the better. I hope this piece will be played a lot, not only by Gil, but by other violinists as well. I want a conservatory student to be able to take it to a concerto competition, for people to be able to play it at school."

To that end, he already has composed a piano reduction of the orchestra part and plans to publish the score with Schirmer in the near future.

For his part, Gil was happy that the composer could tell him directly what he had in mind musically.

"I'm very lucky that Bright was able to spend a good amount of time with me, to talk about the piece and the passages and what he wanted," Gil said. "Hopefully I can come close to what he wanted. It's very exciting because no one's heard it before. It's a little riskier, but that makes it more fun, too!"

Both composer and violinist mentioned the use of harmonics in the second movement.

"The first time I heard Ravel's Tzigane, I was totally mesmerized by how well Ravel wrote for the instrument, and I really studied the score," said Bright, who also is a Professor of Composition at the University of Michigan. "Now I tell my students, if you want to learn how to write for harmonics, you should study that piece."

The new violin concerto allowed him explore harmonic writing in a new way -- maybe completely new. "Basically, you play all the harmonics with one hand position, natural harmonics, but you play quite rapid and it's kind of fast-running melodic notes happen. It's not that hard, and it sounded quite virtuosic. And if you orchestrate with doubling of harp harmonics and pizzicato or glockenspiel or something like vibes, in the background, just a few notes here and there doubling, you get this very pin-like, splendid kind of sound palette."

"Actually, you guys don't have a lot of repertoire that particularly trains players in natural harmonics," Bright said. (I couldn't counter. There's Bartok Rumanian Folk Dances? But that's all artificial...)

With artificial harmonics, "you're constantly moving and adjusting the interval -- it's hard. With natural harmonics, it's actually all in one position. You don't move the hand a lot," he said. "Basically, if you have the left hand stay in one place, you have four strings and all these possibilities of combinations. You can get the entire E major, B major, G major and A major scales. So we'll see how it goes!"

* * *

In addition to the premiere of Bright Sheng's Violin Concerto this weekend, Gil Shaham's upcoming season has a number of highlights, so we spoke about a few, including a performance of John Williams' Violin Concerto with the Chicago Symphony, conducted by John Williams, and a good number of performances of the Korngold Violin Concerto.

The Violin Concerto by John Williams is not the most commonly-played piece by that composer -- not even the most-commonly played violin piece he's written (surely that would be Schindler's List). But Gil Shaham did record the piece in 2001, with the Boston Symphony, with the composer conducting.

"John Williams is a brilliant musician and great artist, a great person," Gil said.
The violin concerto, completed in 1976, certainly is not "Star Wars" for violin; it is a work clearly intended for the concert stage. The piece was written after the death of Williams' first wife, Barbara Ruick, and it is dedicated to her. "I do think that the piece is dark; maybe darker than most people expect when they go to a concert and it says, 'John Williams Violin Concerto.'"

"It starts out with a low violin, playing an abstract melody -- a little dark, a little unsettled," Gil said. "This melody grows into the slow movement melody, which is like an aria for violin. Just when you think it's going to cadence on a beautiful octave, it gives you this very dissonant major 7th, or minor 2nd. I remember John saying, 'Well, you know, every rose has its thorn.' Then comes this last movement, which I remember him talking about it revolving around the note 'G.' It has these chimes and bells, and this witchy violin tarantella. It all builds up to this huge climax, a moment of apotheosis, where that opening melody from the first movement is inverted, the sixths are inverted into thirds, and the violin just soars and sings. I love the piece, I love playing it; I'm thrilled that we'll have a chance to play it again."

Among many other performances, Gil will also play the Korngold Concerto in eight different cities across three continents this season. Many young violinists point to Gil's 1994 recording of that work, along with the Barber Concerto as the recording that made them fall in love with the piece. But how exactly did he find the Korngold, which was definitely not a "Top 10" violin concerto in the early 1990s?

"The Korngold violin concerto," Gil said. "When I was a kid, I was 15, I remember there was a conductor in Israel that I knew, by the name of Yuri Ahronovitch. He said, 'Gil, you have to learn this Korngold Violin Concerto. You have to see it, it's brilliant. Korngold, he was a genius, you have to see this!' And we planned to play a concert a year later in Jerusalem."

"I guess at that time, and maybe hopefully still today, I was up for anything! I said, sure, I'll learn the Korngold Violin Concerto," Gil said. "And I just loved it, right from the time I started learning it. Yuri has passed away since, and that concert never happened. But in the process, I learned this piece. And I always thought it would be fun to play it."

The second movement of the concerto is based on a score Korngold wrote for the 1936 film Anthony Adverse. "He won an Oscar for that," Gil said, "and the other parts of the piece are also from the movies, from Juarez and The Prince and the Pauper."

In the beginning, Gil said he had a very hard time getting the Korngold Violin Concerto programmed. "Conductors didn't know it, and orchestras didn't really want it," Gil said. "Marketing departments said, 'No, we can't sell tickets to Korngold.' When I spoke with the record company at the time, they said, 'Oh we don't know, Korngold? We can't really sell that.'"

"We finally made a recording, with Andre Previn conducting the London Symphony. We did Korngold and Barber Violin Concertos -- it was kind of an East Coast-West Coast recording," Gil said. "We were very lucky because that recording ending up surprising everyone, doing better than they had expected."

Fast-forward a decade or two, and things changed radically for the music of Korngold. "Maybe 10 years later or 15 years later, when I would talk to orchestras about playing the Korngold Violin Concerto, they would say, 'Oh no, we can't have it, we just did it last year!'" Gil laughed.

It's too bad that the composer can't witness the way the classical world has embraced his works. When the Violin Concerto first came out, New York Sun's Irving Kolodin derided it as "more corn than gold."

"I remember talking to some members of the Korngold family and reading his biography, and it was really sad," Gil said. Korngold was a child prodigy, and when he was young, he wrote operas that were performed all across Europe. "Once he left for Hollywood, he was shunned. Apparently he very much wanted to be accepted back in traditional classical circles."

Now, he is.

"I think his music is totally brilliant," Gil said. "Somebody once gave me a cassette tape of a recording that was made at a house party in Hollywood. Korngold just sat down at the piano and improvised improvised for 90 minutes. It's so beautiful; it's incredible! It's kind of nice that his music is accepted again."


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