Saturday, August 28, 2010

Prom 54: Barber and Beyonce

I know what it looks like, but I was actually there.  Really, I promise.  I did take this photo from the comfort of my own couch, but I can explain.  Really.

Rewind to 6:45 p.m. on Thursday night.  I was drenched at Door 8 of the Royal Albert Hall, waiting for John, who was hiding under a tree across the park on his bike, waiting for the rain to subside.  My feet went squish squish squish with every step I took (note to self: cheap Primark flats + monsoon-like August rain = trenchfoot).  Eventually he appeared, sheepishly and sans umbrella, water dripping down the bridge of his nose.  "Um ..." I said, eying his equally damp state.  "Are you ready?" We made our way up to the top tier of the circle, which surprisingly afforded us a perfect view of the stage, much to my relief.

You see, I bought these tickets primarily to see - okay, only to see - Gil Shaham, one of my favorite violinists, perform the Barber Violin Concerto (a slight obsession of mine, having played the first movement for various recitals and auditions in high school and owning a signed recording of the piece by the one and only JBell) ... but first we had to sit through a world premiere entitled "Hammered Out" by Mark-Anthony Turnage (I say "sit through" because that's how I view all pieces that are world premieres - sorry, but I'm not a fan of 21st-century compositions).

And although I braced myself for dissonance, I wasn't properly prepared for the sheer volume of dissonance that would be flung upon me at first chord and instinctively clutched at John in the seat next to me out of fear.  All of a sudden, the dissonance transformed itself into a less dissonant but nevertheless discordant, version of Beyonce's "Single Ladies".  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  What?  I glanced around the hall.  The oldies were clueless, but I saw a couple of guys my age snickering.  "Is this BEYONCE?!" I mouthed to John.  He nodded his affirmation before we both dissolved into immature giggles at the bizarre nature of the piece (the brass helpfully enabled me to conjure up images of rather large pink elephants dancing in champagne).  Later, I bought a programme just to find out more about Turnage's obvious influence behind the piece and read this:  "Turnage has mentioned the influences on it of James Brown, 1970s jazz funk and the brass- and sax-based group Tower of Power ('part of my musical DNA'), and has described the dance episodes in its central section as 'like multi-tracking against a repeating rhythmic pattern.'"  Okay, so no Beyonce then.  Nuh uh.  Right.

Moving on, you can imagine my relief when Mr. Shaham took to the stage and the beautiful, soaring, opening lines of the first movement of the concerto soothed my tortured ears.  Shaham has been a hero of mine since I was quite young and screeching murderously on a 3/4-sized violin.  I saw him at the Pantages Theater in Tacoma with my mom, aged 12 (I think he was playing an entire recital of unaccompanied Bach) and gravitated toward his more traditional performance posture, versus the emotionally-charged, wild flailing of many virtuoso violinists of today.  This time, particularly in the first and second movements, his body seemed freer than I remembered and I actually preferred his performance to that of JBell's (I know, sorry, JBell) interpretation of the same piece, which I saw last year at the Barbican (and where I procured the signed recording after much back-stage stalking).  The beauty in Shaham's interpretation was his way of taking the liberty with his rubato - so much so that the audience was very-nearly (or at least, I was) tortured for the release of the next note, particularly in the second movement, where rubato makes all the difference.  After an astonishingly fast third movement, Shaham returned to the stage after three curtain calls for an encore - of unaccompanied Bach (Gavotte from Partita No. 3), which stunned the audience into a magical silence.

How lucky was I then, after escaping during intermission (headaches all around, no doubt due to Turnage's opening number, no offense to the composer and unfortunately, a lack of interest in the Sibelius symphony ... at least, not enough interest to keep me there) and taking a cab home, to turn on the TV and project the interview (seen above) with Gil Shaham on the wall of my living room (along with the second half of the concert)?  He spoke enthusiastically about Barber, his violin, and the Proms.

One of the things I love most about Shaham is his humility and kindly nature, which emanates from his playing.   A note about the Proms: due to the nature of its audiences, a lot of people applaud between movements.  I've learned to accept this and stop throwing evil looks when it happens (though I haven't gone as far as to join in).  Usually when this happens, the soloist ignores the audience or looks away, not wanting to ruin his focus and concentration for the next movement.  But not Shaham.  No, he gave a slight bow and smiled graciously each time this occurred, which was incredibly endearing.

I was very fortunate to see him again, and now John has a new favorite violinist.


  1. I agree! My brother and I were in the arena, laughing a lot. I took the liberty of spending my Saturday afternoon making the following video.

    It confirms my suspicions....

  2. Oh my god. That is genius. Thank you for sharing that.


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