U.S. violinist Gil Shaham played a searching and joyful evening of Bach at Meany Hall — but were the accompanying films by David Michalek really necessary?
The works of J.S. Bach for solo instruments have always inspired a unique reverence in musicians and their audiences. Cellists return again and again to the famous cello suites, often changing their minds about interpretation (Janos Starker recorded them five times). Pianists and harpsichordists are obsessed by the great “Goldberg” Variations and “The Well-Tempered Clavier.”
And as Gil Shaham did on Saturday evening at Meany Hall, violinists choose the six solo works — three Sonatas and three Partitas — as their artistic calling card, their way of saying: “This is who I am as a musician.” Shaham’s recital, which paired his remarkable playing with David Michalek’s films displayed overhead on a large screen, made a musical statement that can stand with the very best.
A highly regarded player in all kinds of repertoire, Shaham has a way with solo Bach that is distinctly his own. Each phrase was shaped by his infinitely pliant bow, sometimes slowly questing and searching, sometimes joyfully taking off like a startled rhebok.
Meany World Series: Bach’s Six Solos — the Sonatas and Partitas
With violinist Gil Shaham and filmmaker David Michalek, Saturday evening at Meany Hall, University of Washington, Seattle.
Using a baroque-style configuration with gut strings, a higher bridge (which holds the strings in place) and a baroque bow with more space between the hair and the stick, Shaham shaped his phrases with a minimum of vibrato, which he used sparingly as an expressive device. Apart from a few minor misjudged intervals, the playing was uncannily accurate. His ornamentation was imaginative and subtle.
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The program had three parts (each with a Sonata and a Partita) and two intermissions. Many of the individual movements, but not all of them, unfolded to the accompaniment of very slow-motion films designed to “spark the kinesthetic vision of each viewer,” as Michalek observed in the program. Among the subjects of the mini-films: a tender scene of mother and children, a white bird with rippling feathers, a girl in a red dress dancing, a pair of winsome young violinists and a woman reading an apparently revelatory letter.
Did the films add to the music? In some respects, certainly. For music lovers, however, there’s also the sense that these great works are best heard as an auditory experience without the need for extra visual enhancement. Sometimes the format seemed to place the violinist in the role of soundtrack provider, rather than soloist. For some movements of the Sonatas and Partitas, there was no accompanying film, making one wonder what there was about the specific movement that left the screen blank.
In the program essay, Shaham said that his focus on these Bach works has fundamentally changed the way he holds the bow, the way he holds the violin and the way he puts his fingers down: “I’ve found myself questioning everything.” The results on Saturday at Meany Hall made it clear that this journey was more than worthwhile. Shaham’s interpretations are searching, thought-provoking, deeply musical and, on a technical level, beyond the dreams of most players.
There was no encore; after such a program, an encore would have been superfluous, like adding a hat to the Mona Lisa.