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Shaham, the BSO, and a Concerto by John Williams

Gil Shaham, with the BSO on March 19, 2016
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Gil Shaham, with the BSO on March 19, 2016

Saturday, February 6, 2021
8:00 PM

The Boston Symphony Orchestra performs the Violin Concerto by John Williams with soloist Gil Shaham, and Stéphane Denève conducts Jennifer Higdon's Blue Cathedral and the Symphony No. 3, the "Organ" Symphony, by Saint-Saëns.

Stéphane Denève, conductor
Gil Shaham, violin

HIGDON blue cathedral
WILLIAMS Violin Concerto
SAINT-SAENS Symphony No. 3, "Organ"

This concert is no longer available on demand.

Stéphane Denève describes the connections between the first two pieces in the concert and reveals the way a single note in Saint-Saëns's "Organ" Symphony carries that theme into the second half (transcript below):

Gil Shaham previews the Violin Concerto by John Williams and describes the process of learning the piece with the composer (transcript below):


Transcript of interview with Stéphane Denève:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath with Stéphane Denève at Symphony Hall. It's great to have you back. Thanks for taking a few minutes to talk with me, Stéphane.

Stéphane Denève [00:00:05] It's always a pleasure to be here with you.

BMcC [00:00:09] The concert this week includes two American pieces and the Saint-Saëns "Organ" Symphony. And I want to ask you about, especially, "Blue Cathedral," by Jennifer Higdon and whether this is a piece that you've conducted before and why it is one of the most popular modern pieces on orchestra programs these days.

SD [00:00:27] I did conduct this piece, more than six or seven times already. And indeed, this piece has been played more than 600 times by two hundred and ninety something different orchestras. So it's an extremely successful piece. And the reason, I think, is that it has a wonderful, touching element in it. It's very moving. It has beautiful melodies, a fantastic structure. It's also unique. It has some sound effects that are really special. So all that together made, actually, this piece a very attractive one. And I believe that when a piece is really good and attractive, it will be played a lot. That's just the normal effect. And that's the case for this piece.

BMcC [00:01:15] What I love about talking with you is that you maintain really active schedules on both sides of the Atlantic. I mean, usually conductors are more based in one place or another. But, so my question about "Blue Cathedral" is, does it have this much traction in Europe as well as America?

SD [00:01:32] It is played indeed now quite regularly in Europe, too. It's certainly less well-known and she's less well-known in Europe than she is in America, where she's really a star. But it's really coming. And I did this piece in Stuttgart and just did it recently in Brussels with my new orchestra, the Brussels Philharmonic. I think I did it with the Danish Radio. And the musicians in all of this orchestras were actually very enthusiastic. They thought that it was really a beautiful piece, just that their first reaction, people say, "Oh, it's beautiful." And so I'm very pleased to program this piece again and again because we need to establish some pieces as new, you know, repertoire pieces. And this, really, for me, can stand the test of time and become a repertoire piece.

BMcC [00:02:29] And I know that that's actually a cause of yours. You've established a center in Brussels to make sure that new music is being curated effectively.

SD [00:02:36] Yes, the fact is, there are many, many, many premières in the world, but not a lot of second or third or fourth. And I think it's very important now to make the right selection and to try to identify and promote the right pieces that can connect with the audience and become the classics of the future.

BMcC [00:02:58] And, then, so the next piece on the program is somewhat in this category, where the Violin Concerto by John Williams has only been played by the BSO one time. And that's kind of amazing, given John Williams and his relationship to the Pops and to the BSO. What inspired you to include that piece on this program?

SD [00:03:14] I got to know John Williams, who I always loved, of course, since I'm a child. I loved his music, but I got to know the man, thanks to Tanglewood. And I love this man so much that I wanted to really research and know more all what he has written. And it's a lot; he has written many, many movies, more than we think we know, of course, actually numerous big hits. But there really a lot more just on the movie side. Also, I discovered - I knew already some pieces that he wrote for the concert platform - but I discover many more. And I literally fell in love with a recording of the violin concerto with Gil Shaham with a BSO.

[00:04:01] I think the piece has a very special quality and I think it's very deep, and it reveals something from John Williams deeply. I feel it's a very intimate piece and I really love this piece so much that I wanted to program it. So I did program it last last year in Philadelphia. And, uh, and I was able to repeat this repertoire in Boston with the orchestra who recorded it with Gil. So it's a dream come true.

BMcC [00:04:34] So I will now ask the most obvious question that any interviewer could ask you, which is, if someone knows John's film music, even some of it, not all of it, how does that compare to what you hear from the music in the Violin Concerto?

SD [00:04:50] Indeed, it's interesting because it is definitely his signature style, which is to be extremely lyrical. For me he has, first, one incredible gift, which is a melodic gift, it's something so rare, so few composers just are able to write really successful melodies. And he did many in his career. And this concerto has a lot of fabulous melodies.

[00:05:21] But the overall language is certainly less tonal, and it's slightly modernistic in its choice of notes, of pitches. Also the the way it's structure is very different, you know, because when you do a big format, like a 30 minute concerto, you need to have a very complicated structure and work the the thematic material in a certain way, which you cannot do in a movie. And so of course, this is a masterwork and it's very rich in its organization of the different moments and different melodies. So I would say you can recognize definitely that [it's] the same man and especially in this generous lyrical aspect. But people will certainly be surprised to see the complexity and the kind of modernity that John Williams puts in this particular piece.

BMcC [00:06:27] I am someone who almost thinks it's never a bad time to hear the Third Symphony by Saint-Saëns, because I just love the piece and, especially with this orchestra, and this organ, in this hall, it's spectacular. Is there any particular reason that you chose that piece along with the Williams and the Higdon for this concert?

SD [00:06:45] Yes, there is a reason because we first programed the Violin Concerto. I wanted to do this piece with Gil and then I added Jennifer Higdon "Blue Cathedral," because both pieces share the same theme, which is, they are inspired by the loss of beloved, of a close person. And so they reflect about the mourning and the loss. And so I wanted to find, somehow, a piece in the second part which has this connection as well, which is somehow spiritual, but also has this journey going from death to light, if I may say, to life. And the interesting thing is the Third Symphony of Saint-Saëns has a main melody in which the five first notes, [sings] the five first notes are exactly the five first notes of the Dies irae of the Latin mass, I mean, the Requiem. And so they are linked definitely to something dark and to death. But then - the power of music -  changing only one note, the first note, the E-flat into E natural. It becomes [sings]. And then it's quoting a very famous French Ave Maria. And Ave Maria is a Hail Mary, right? And so it's a symbol of life and light. And so it's interesting that changing only one note, you go from death to life and to light and that's the miracle of music. And so somehow I think this piece was connected beautifully to the first part.

BMcC [00:08:36] I loved the piece already and I love it more. That's fantastic. I did not know that. I mean, I recognize those those figures that you sing and how that changes. And yes, I get the light. I didn't make the connection to the Dies irae, or to the Ave Maria. That's fantastic. Thank you. I know that you've worked a lot with Gil. You even mentioned before that you had done the Williams with him. But just in the mail last week came your latest collaboration on record with Gil Shaham, the Bartok Second Concerto and Prokofiev that you recorded with him. Well, you did the Bartok. The Prokofiev was with the Knights. But tell me what your memory is of recording the Bartok with Gil.

SD [00:09:12] It's a beautiful story. And what happened is we perform regularly together and we did, in Los Angeles, a few years ago, the Bartok Second Concerto. And the reviewer, the critic, in the Los Angeles Times wrote that it was a good performance. He was happy. So that's good news. And that, he wrote in the article, that we had a special connection and we should record it. And I told Gil, I said, you know, he couldn't be more right, this reviewer, because indeed I would love to record this piece with you, you played so well. And so, it was kind of a joke. But then I had an opportunity in Stuttgart, with my orchestra, the Radio Orchestra of Stuttgart, to actually give him some time. And he was free and so, just, we said, let's do it. And so we recorded it together and he played brilliantly because he really has a connection with this piece, which is incredible. He masters the incredible virtuosity of the piece, and he has many colors, and he's so generous. I mean, Gil is such an incredibly generous soul and you feel it in every note he plays.

BMcC [00:10:26] Well, and I'm going to give a little shout out to your orchestra. The Stuttgart Radio Orchestra sounds spectacular in this recording. I was just listening to it earlier today, so I appreciate your your recollection of it. And that's a great story of how it came together. Stéphane Denève, thank you for taking a few minutes to talk with me today.

SD [00:10:40] That's my pleasure. Thank you. Have a good evening.

Transcript of interview with Gil Shaham:

Brian McCreath [00:00:00] I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall. I'm with Gil Shaham, who fortunately is back here in Boston, and he's playing the Violin Concerto by John Williams. Gil, thank you so much for taking a few minutes to talk with me today.

Gil Shaham [00:00:10] Thank you. I'm loving being with you. I'm loving being here. I'm playing John Williams' Concerto and loving doing that. And it's... yeah, very happy to be with you.

BMcC [00:00:21] So John Williams wrote this concerto, you know, before you were really fully launched as a professional. But it's been a piece that you've kind of owned. I mean, you're one of the major proponents of this concerto. I know you've done it a lot with Stefan [Denève]. And so my question at first is, because people know John's music so well through film, and you've done his Schindler's List music a lot, how do you relate someone's knowledge of that world to this concerto from a listener's standpoint?

GS [00:00:50] Well, I think sometimes listeners might be surprised when they hear the Violin Concerto. You know, this is a very, um, I, I want to say somber, or I'm not sure what the right word would be, it's, there is a dark quality to the piece. And it's certainly a concert work, you know, it's not music for a film. And I love the piece. I've been very lucky to have worked on it with John. And we've performed it several times, you know, and we even recorded it here many, many years, you know, about 100 years ago. I'm a great fan and I love his writing.

[00:01:44] But he always says, "Composing music is like working in a kitchen." You know, he says, you know, there's always something to do. You always go back here and change a little or do something there. And that's been the case with this Violin Concerto. So even for this performance this week, there are some new notes and some different bars and some things have changed. And, yeah, it's been really incredible to work on it with John.

[00:02:14] I find the piece to be incredibly moving. It starts with this very dark, almost minor quality, although it's not, you know, exactly, and in a tonal vein, you know, sort of a B-flat going up to a G-flat in a sixth. And this very compact gesture is kind of the seed for the whole piece and by the end of the third movement, it transforms. And there's an incredible moment where the sort of apotheosis of the piece, where it's inverted into a minor third, but it has a major quality because it's G-sharp and B-natural, you know, and the violin takes over this tune, this time with a whole orchestra, the force of the entire orchestra behind the violinist. And yeah, it really takes the listener on an incredible journey, you know.

BMcC [00:03:18] So the thing about it is that, and because you've worked with John so much on it and played it and recorded with him, you know the story of it. And it was written just after his wife had died. And I just wonder with pieces like that, and there are many other pieces like that where there is a story that feeds into the music itself, how much does that story in this case really stay present in your mind as you play?

GS [00:03:43] You know, I have asked John that same question about this piece. And he sort of said, yes, you know, John's wife was someone who loved violin. And, you know, the piece is dedicated to her. And so at the very least, you know, I don't know if there's a literal story in the music, but there's something about her that's very much part of this music.

BMcC [00:04:16] John also has said that this piece is sort of in the same vein as great 20th century violin concertos by Bartok and Prokofiev. It's funny that he mentioned to those. Tell me how you, how that resonates with you when you play John's Violin Concerto. Does it have that kind of connection for you as a performer?

GS [00:04:34] Oh, I think if you... yeah, yeah. There is, very much something about that, and when you're on stage and you're delivering, I don't know, a Prokofiev violin concerto for your audience, very similar to going on stage and delivering, you know, the lines from John Williams' Violin Concerto. And I guess you could look at some things, the very last note of the piece is, you know, the open G string on the violin, in an accented eighth note, you know. And that's the same as the very last note of Prokofiev's Second Violin Concerto. So, yeah, I mean, you could point out little similarities to that. And John's knowledge of the violin literature is pretty encyclopedic, you know, and I say this as a violinist.

[00:05:27] It's really staggering to, you know, just to be around him, to talk music with him because he really does know so much about, you know, what has been written for violin and violin writing. And I think this piece comes from a place of great love for the violin. Just as he said.

[00:05:49] I feel like I should tell you the story of the one, you know, there was one instance when John changed the ending of the first movement. There was a beautiful ending before, where that melody that starts the piece comes back with the violins and the orchestra, and then the solo violin plays a counterpoint to it. And the counterpoint before was very poignant and very touching. But John decided to change it. And I can't remember if we were on the phone or we spoke, and he said, look - you know, I think he calls me Baby. He says, "Look, Baby, it's, I changed" - you know, it's a little bit like kind of jazz vernacular or something, you know. He's like, "Look, Baby, I think I changed the ending and some of the counterpoint." And I'm like, "Really? I'm ... My curiosity is piqued, you know? Can you tell me?" He's like, "Well, you'll see, you'll see." And then when I looked at it, just the most breathtaking thing, you know. And I'm not saying this story properly, but just...

[00:07:10] As beautiful as the counterpoint before was, suddenly this takes that passage to a whole other level, you know, with the violin kind of soaring up to a high B and some long notes. And in a way, there's less, fewer notes - but much greater impact emotionally, you know. And I don't know. I wish I could describe it better.

BMcC [00:07:38] But that's a great example of what you said at the beginning.

GS [00:07:40] If I showed you the two passages next to each other, you would see, oh, you know, this one is beautiful, but this one has much more impact, possibly, you know.

BMcC [00:07:51] Well, Gil Shaham, it's been so nice to talk with you. I really appreciate it.

GS [00:07:54] Thank you. Great to see you. Great to be with you.