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Gil Shaham on Bach

Gil Shaham
Chris Lee
Opus 3 Artists
Gil Shaham

Years of musical and life experience inform a rich interpretation of Bach's solo violin works, illuminated through both performance and conversation on The Bach Hour.

On the program:

Arioso, from the Harpsichord Concerto in F minor, BWV 1056 (trans. Stokowski) - Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, Jose Serebrier, conductor

Cantata BWV 135 Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder (translation) - Siri Thornhill, soprano; Petra Noskaiova, alto; Christoph Genz, tenor; Jan Van der Crabben, baritone; La Petite Bande, Sigiswald Kuijken, conductor

Chorale Prelude: Ach Herr, mich armen Sünder - Harald Vogel, organ (John Brombaugh organ at Central Lutheran Church, Eugene, Oregon)

Partita No. 2 for solo violin, BWV 1004 - Gil Shaham, violin

Hear an interview with Gil Shaham on Bach's solo violin works:

Gil Shaham talks with host Brian McCreath about Bach's solo violin music

Interview transcript:
Brian McCreath [00:00:00] When somebody suddenly says, let's talk about Bach, how close to the surface is Bach at any given moment for you?

Gil Shaham [00:00:07] Well, I suspect that you're a Bachian. And am I right about this?

Brian McCreath [00:00:11] I would have to say yes.

Gil Shaham [00:00:12] And so I would say, you know. We're sitting here backstage at Symphony Hall and we just heard the organ.

Brian McCreath [00:00:29] That's right. The Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony being rehearsed at this moment.

Gil Shaham [00:00:32] And we know how much of a Bachian Saint-Saëns was, you know. And one of the things that I find amazing is how directly so much music - I was going to say all of music, but since I don't know all of music, I'm going to say so much of music - how directly it all flows from Bach. And actually John Williams, I remember told me, for years he traveled with Bach's music on him, you know...

Brian McCreath [00:01:03] Just traveled around with it?

Gil Shaham [00:01:04] Yeah. He said and he always had, you know, his book of Bach with him. And if you think about it, we know Mozart was very serious about his studies of Bach, you know, he went to Leipzig and he heard what was it, a motet? And he said, "This is music from which one can learn." And then he, you know, became a very serious student of Bach for several months. And Beethoven began by playing the Well-Tempered Clavier. Those were his beginnings. That's where he came from. And the same with Chopin, the same with Brahms and Schumann. Brahms said, if you want to study music, then study Bach, it's all there. You know, we know this is true for Prokofiev and Stravinsky and for Bartók and for Samuel Barber. And so it really does seem to, I was going to say all, but almost all of it seems to flow very directly from people studying Bach.

Brian McCreath [00:02:04] Yeah. And you played the solo works, the sonatas and partitas for a long time before you recorded. And that's not such a rare story. I mean, a lot of people take their time before they get to it. Some people dive right in, and they'll start performing them very early on. But for you, your sense of needing to wait before you really perform them comes from where?

Gil Shaham [00:02:25] You know, I somehow avoided performing them in public for many years because I felt, audiences feel very strongly about these pieces. I feel so strongly, you know, we all feel so strongly about these particular pieces, the sonatas and partitas. And I guess it was about 15 years ago that I thought, you know, I'm going to have to make a concerted effort, you know, no pun intended, and start playing them in public and see. You know, it's never going to feel more comfortable, it's never going to improve unless I start doing it. And so I began playing them and then I discovered what so many other musicians have said before me, you know, which is, there really is no greater joy than playing the music of Bach...

Brian McCreath [00:03:26] In public.

Gil Shaham [00:03:28] In public, in private, anywhere. I find when I set myself, you know, a half hour to go to my practice room to play some Bach, invariably, I go in there and an hour later, an hour and a half later, I'm still going, and yeah, it's really just so inspiring to be around that music, to be around that man, to read about him, to hear the music, to play the music.

Brian McCreath [00:03:59] For the recording that you did, you made some serious adjustments to your equipment, sort of making it more of a baroque violin and using a bow, the strings, the bridge, all this stuff. And that seems very technical to people who don't play the violin. They might have a sense that, yeah, sure, you might have to change the way your arm works or something like that. But aside from those, the sort of mechanical adjustments - or maybe the mechanical adjustments feed into this - what did all of that teach you about these pieces?

Gil Shaham [00:04:29] You know, I found that with these pieces, I ended up changing everything, just - maybe this my midlife crisis - just questioning everything from, you know, what kind of strings to use to, you know, how to hold the violin, how to hold the bow, how to move my fingers, which fingerings to use... And I think I did learn a lot from it, you know? I loved playing with the baroque set-up. I want say "baroque" because maybe it's not exactly right. I'd say "baroque-ish." I did have a beautiful bridge made by Adam Crane in New York in a sort of 1730's-modeled German bow made by Marcus Lane in New York. And I did put on the gut strings which I love. You know, it's a very special sound. And the truth is, I think you can do everything on a modern violin that you can do on a baroque-ish violin and vice versa, but maybe some things are a little bit easier.

Brian McCreath [00:05:46] Yeah, yeah, yeah. And maybe you have to work so hard to get at that thing you want.

Gil Shaham [00:05:51] Yes, that's right. You know, it's like the difference between driving different cars, different models of cars. And I guess what I've been saying is there's a wonderful quote from Leopold Mozart, Mozart's father, who wrote a treatise on the violin. And he said the round bow - he talks about the round bow being the older baroque-ish bow - he says the round bow has a small softness at the beginning of each stroke. And I love that word, the small soft, because that's exactly how I feel when playing that. And that kind of small softness, I think it's easier with the baroque-ish set-up than maybe with the modern set-up.

Brian McCreath [00:06:36] So you spend time alone playing Bach, and of course, it's like with anybody - actually, there's a great quote. I know if you've read this. Jeremy Denk wrote, you probably know Jeremy. I would imagine that you know how great a writer he is. I mean, he's ridiculous. I don't know how anybody can be that talented. But he wrote something, I can't read recently where I saw it, but he wrote a thing about Bach and said, "No matter who you are, how much music you've ever studied, go play some Bach. If you have to fight your way through the C major Prelude from WTC 1 or something like that, you know, rudimentary Bach, whatever that is, or a Two-Part Invention... Play some Bach. By the time you're done, it will be the most beautiful Bach you've ever heard.

Gil Shaham [00:07:23] Oh, yeah, I love that.

Brian McCreath [00:07:26] But, so I understand how spending time alone is so reenergizing and so rejuvenating. But my question is, how much does Bach's other music play into how you approach the sonatas and partitas?

Gil Shaham [00:07:40] Well, I think that was maybe one of the greatest influences on me, was just putting this music in context. I think when I first looked at the first page of the G minor, you know, the First Sonata, when I was, I can't remember, you know, this was part of our education. I was 12 years old or something. I honestly don't remember what I thought, but I don't think I really knew what to make of it, you know? And, you know, maybe as I grew older and I got a little more context and heard many other preludes to other fugues, then I suddenly was able to make sense of, OK, this is what's what's going on here.

[00:08:25] And, you know, the sonatas and partitas are actually a unique volume in Bach's output in that they alternate this sonata with dance suite. This kind of sonata da chiesa and the partitas. And that was fascinating. For the partitas, I was able to find many, many models sort of, you know, the French Suites, the English Suites, the orchestral suites, you know, the cellos, the lute suites, you know. But this alternation is not, I don't believe there is another set like it in Bach. And I was curious about it. And then we found some interesting parallels with Couperin, like with works like Les Nations, you know, where he does start with sonatas sometimes, but with a Grave or a Gravement, you know, similar to the violin Second Sonata. And then finishing with a dance suite and sometimes finishing with with a ciaccone at the end. So, yeah, I think context, trying to put music in context is a very important part of, you know, studying a piece. And so I feel like, hopefully, today I have a little more context in my head than I did when I started out.

Brian McCreath [00:10:06] Here's a little context from the notes that you have for your Bach recording that I had not run across, and I love it. So can you describe the way the dance suites, the partitas, have some possible reflection of social hierarchy. And then, especially, it's sort of an interesting thing, but I wonder, from a performer point of view, does that change how you play them when you think about that model?

Gil Shaham [00:10:30] Well, I think it did for me, absolutely. And I use this as an example. When people ask, and I'm sorry to say I don't remember the name of the author who wrote this article, but it was a fascinating article about the baroque suite, the traditional musical baroque suite, not necessarily Bach. But the way he described it, there was an understood hierarchy to every suite, where you know, the king and queen would dance first, you know, and that would be a very stately dance, you know, like the Allemande or the Allemanda, or the Courante. There's something like that. Maybe the king and queen of the ball, you know, I guess we still have some remnants of this, right? You know? They would come out and dance first, and that would be those dotted rhythms, maybe in French style or something that, you know, and it would be very stately dance, moving limbs, but not really facial expressions. Then maybe more of the nobility would join in for the next dance, which would be like maybe a running dance, like a Corrente or something like that. And by the time you reach the Sarabande, you know, things were much more relaxed. And the Sarabande, you know, was a dance or people employed, you know, facial expressions and had a...

Brian McCreath [00:12:12] And those are incredibly expressive movements. They're not just dancing. They're like these soulful movements.

Gil Shaham [00:12:18] Oh, yeah, beautiful, sometimes the heart of the piece. Yeah, very sensual, maybe, possibly, and then at the end, everybody danced a jig, you know? And I hadn't thought of the suite before in those terms, in terms of social hierarchy. And I found that after I read that article, I heard this music differently. And I'm sure I play it differently. But, yeah, there's something about, like you say, something about context.

Brian McCreath [00:12:54] Well, I just love that sense that something you can run across, especially after knowing something for so many years, would would have that large an impact. And I'm sure there are other examples of of things you learn that have a large impact on how you're playing, because you're playing is always evolving. But I just love that idea that creativity works that way.

Gil Shaham [00:13:16] You must know this wonderful book, Dance and the Music of J.S. Bach.

Brian McCreath [00:13:22] I don't know. Tell me about all this.

Gil Shaham [00:13:25] This is a fantastic book. This is an incredible work by two authors, and I hope I'm saying their names properly, Natalie Jenne and Meredith Little. And people who are around Bach suddenly become Bachian. That's my experience.

Brian McCreath [00:13:47] I can relate to that.

Gil Shaham [00:13:48] They go and they really start doing things to the nth degree. And, it's really like, when you hear a Bach fugue and you see all the permutations that are taken, you know that there were all the other permutations that were not taken but were taken into consideration. So they did a very Bachian job of studying dance and Bach's music. And they go back to sources and texts and dance instruction, you know, records that we have. And they relate it to Bach's music. And it's eye opening for people who love this music.

Brian McCreath [00:14:43] I'll put it on my list. I mean, this sounds tremendous.

Gil Shaham [00:14:46] Very, very thorough. And they go through every single work of Bach's. And they show how many pieces that are not titled "dance" movements necessarily are dances. I mean, many gigues happen to be fugues, you know, as well. So it's, but on the other hand, many works that are titled fugues also are gigues. And they go to great lengths to show all these different dance forms. And needless to say, Bach was a master of all of them.

Brian McCreath [00:15:27] Yeah. Yeah. That's the thing. Right, that I mean, there's just no end to the ways that people can explore this. And so, you know, if you read Christoph Wolff and then you read John Eliot Gardiner and you I mean, you just you can go through all this and still there's someone else who's come up with another approach to all this that uncovers more. It's amazing.

Gil Shaham [00:15:43] It is amazing and so inspiring.

Brian McCreath [00:15:48] Well, Gil Shaham, it's been so nice to talk with you. Thank you for taking a long time and talking about so many things with me. I really appreciate it.

Gil Shaham [00:15:54] Thank you. Great to see you. Great to be with you.