Gil Shaham, violin


Wednesday, December 8, 2021
7:30 PM
Bing Concert Hall


Gil Shaham, violin


Sonata No. 2, in A minor, for solo violin, BWV1003 (completed by 1720)


Partita No. 2, in D minor, for solo violin, BWV1004 (completed by 1720)




Isolation Rag (2020)


MAX RAIMI (b. 1956)
Violin Étude: Anger Management (2015)


REENA ESMAIL (b. 1983)
When the Violin (2020)


Partita No. 3, in E, for solo violin, BWV1006 (completed by 1720)
           Gavotte en rondeau
           Menuet I and II



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PROGRAM SUBJECT TO CHANGE. Please be considerate of others and turn off all phones, pagers, and watch alarms. Photography and recording of any kind are not permitted. Thank you.

HEALTH AND SAFETY: All patrons are required to wear a mask at this performance. 

Program Notes

Born in Eisenach, Germany, March 21, 1685; died Leipzig, Germany, July 28, 1750
Sonata No. 2, in A minor, for solo violin, BWV1003 (completed by 1720)
Partita No. 2, in D minor, for solo violin, BWV1004 (completed by 1720)

“Great art from minimal means.” That’s how the German composer and critic Johann Friedrich Reichardt perceptively characterized the first published edition of three of Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for unaccompanied violin in 1805, more than half a century after the composer’s death. He called Bach’s solo violin music “perhaps the greatest example in any art of the freedom and certainty with which a great master can move, even when he is in chains.” But no one was listening. Less than half a century later we find Bach’s strongest advocate, Felix Mendelssohn, (in 1840) and then Robert Schumann (in 1854) helping Bach overcome his bondage when both added piano accompaniment to Bach’s presumed ‘inadequate’ violin line. By the end of the century, Joachim was the first to play the pieces unaccompanied and to introduce Bach’s polyphony to 19th century audiences. 

Still, the public still found unaccompanied Bach a tough listen. Visiting London, Joachim had to contend with George Bernard Shaw, then writing music criticism for The Star. “Of course, you cannot play a fugue in three continuous parts on the violin,” thundered Shaw in 1890, adding that grating a nutmeg on the sole of a boot would produce more musical results than the scraping of a solo violin in Bach. Undeterred, Joachim made a few (albeit primitive) recordings in 1903, four years before his death. It was not until 1936 that the first complete set was recorded (Yehudi Menuhin) and not until 1977 (Sergio Luca) that recordings significantly began to incorporate baroque performance practice.

The most reliable source of the music is an autograph copy that came down to us from the inheritance of Christiane Louisa Bach, one of Bach’s granddaughters. Its full title is Six solos for violin, without bass accompaniment, Book One, by Joh. Seb. Bach, 1720. (Book Two would be the six Cello Suites and it has been suggested that additional collections of a similar nature for other instruments, like the flute, may have been in Bach’s mind). In 1720, when he completed and compiled the violin collection, Bach was midway through his appointment as Kapellmeister to Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Cöthen, a prestigious position which, at its peak, was better paid than his future position in Leipzig.  

Bach may have begun work on the Sonatas and Partitas earlier, when he was employed as a violinist, amongst other duties, in Weimar. But it is not known for whom the music was intended. Certainly, the performer must have possessed an extraordinary technique, as the technical demands, though thoroughly idiomatic, are extreme. It may have been his contemporary, Johann Georg Pisendel, widely recognized as a leading violinist of his time and himself a composer of a solo suite for the violin. Other leading violinists of the day included Joseph Spiess, who worked at the court in Cöthen, Johann Paul von Westhoff, the Weimar virtuoso, Jean-Baptiste Volumier, the Dresden Konzertmeiser, and Bach himself.  Most of these violinists also wrote demanding solo works. But Bach’s six Sonatas and Partitas surpass them in technical demands and musical excellence. They represent the culmination of Baroque polyphonic writing for a string instrument.

The collection, as originally put together by Bach, consists of three pairs of alternating Sonatas and Partitas, each closely related through the key relationship of a falling fifth. The three Sonatas share a four-movement structure that derives from the slow-fast-slow-fast sequence of the Italian sonata da chiesa, represented by the music of Corelli and the Italian violinists. The opening movement of the Sonata No. 2, in A minor, BWV1003 has the character of an improvisatory prelude, creating an illusion of multiple instrumental voices through the generous use of chords spread across the four strings of the violin. It leads to a complex, extended fugue, built on a short subject of just two bars, punctuated by contrasting episodes. The slowly pulsing Andante slow movement, with its extended melody and accompaniment, is more relaxed and closer in type to the dance movements found in the Partitas. The final movement is virtuoso in technique and rich in echo effects and artistic depth.

The Partitas (or Partia, as they are called in Bach’s manuscript) are essentially Suites, a meaning that German composers had relatively recently adopted for their collections of instrumental dance music, with or without additional movements of a non-dance nature.  The Partita No. 2, in D minor, BWV1004 begins with the four core dances of the traditional 18th century suite. The Allemanda contains elements of a prelude-style first movement with its declamatory opening, imitative part-writing to create an illusion of two or more instruments, and a sequence of changing harmonies in a somewhat improvisatory style. The Corrente, a dance that Bach inherited via Corelli and other Italians, is sprightly and cheerful, continuously evolving from an opening flourish and sequence of hops and jumps. As in all the dance movements, it falls into a binary structure, with each half repeated.  Its exuberance is complemented by the reflective Sarabanda, which is rich in chordal writing. The Giga is nimble and joyous with a strong feeling of forward momentum. Normally the concluding movement of a suite, the Giga and, indeed, the entire Partita, is then crowned by a mighty, stately Ciaccona. In its vast structure of 64 variations, Bach employs just about every resource available to the 18th century violinist. This is one of only two surviving chaconnes by Bach. It presents a formidable array of technically challenging melodic and harmonic variations over a four-bar ground, juxtaposing the Italian and French styles of the day. The chaconne was characterized by Brahms as “one of the most wonderful, incomprehensible pieces of music.” It is, without doubt, one of the great works in not only the Baroque violin repertoire, but in the entire violin repertoire.

Born in Washington, D.C., February 24, 1952
Isolation Rag (2020)

Written for Gil Shaham during the week following the March 2020 shutdown of concert-giving, Boston-based composer Scott Wheeler, who has taught for many years at Emerson College, characterizes his Isolation Rag as “a bittersweet portrait of a solo violinist playing for himself in his apartment, missing his orchestra.” Wheeler had just attended a concert which Shaham concluded with William Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost rag.  Echoes of its wistful nostalgia linger in his own Isolation Rag, which is similarly not isolated from certain great composers from the past, particularly to those who know their violin concertos by Mendelssohn and Brahms. Listen for the sly quotes!

Born in Detroit in 1956
Violin Étude: Anger Management (2015)

A violist in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1984, Max Raimi first wrote his Three Études for his own instrument, later adapting them for violin. Raimi, who also teaches chamber music at Northwestern University, has composed many works. Anger Management is a virtuoso exercise in double-stopping interspersed with rapid passagework. Gil Shaham first played it as an encore after a concerto with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. “When Gil was in town,” Raimi says, “I figured I had nothing to lose, and gave him the music to one of the Études. This was on Thursday night. To my astonishment, he learned it and was able to perform it brilliantly by Saturday. Some of these guys are just a different species than I am!”

Born in Chicago, February 11, 1983 
When the Violin (2020)

Trained in both Western and Indian classical music traditions, Los Angeles-based composer Reena Esmail describes her aim as a composer as beginning “to bring people together to begin to have conversations.” The current Artist-in-Residence with the Los Angeles Master Chorale and past Composer-in-Residence with the Seattle Symphony chose to complement a 16th century Spanish choral piece with her own setting of the 14th century Persian poet Hafiz. Its poem begins: “When the violin can forgive the past the heart starts singing.” Esmail’s resulting setting of the poet’s search for forgiveness in order that the heart can sing was initially made for cello and choir. She further developed the piece for solo violin during a COVID-19 lockdown for a virtual lecture on forgiveness and race by her husband, violinist Vijay Gupta. The music is based on a Hindustani raag called ‘Charukeshi.’ “I love this raag,” Esmail says, “because it is so simple, and yet it can reveal emotions that range from the depths of darkness to the most beautiful, piercing light . . . the sound of the soul cracking open.”

Partita No. 3, in E, for solo violin, BWV1006 (completed by 1720)

Where the four dances of the First Partita and five of the Second are primarily Italianate (and this is reflected in the titles Bach gave to the movements), the six dances of the Partita No. 3, in E, BWV1006 are predominantly French.  Here, as in the similarly titled keyboard Partitas, Bach consciously mixes and contrasts the Italian and the French musical traditions. It opens with one of the finest of Bach’s preludes—a joyous, virtuoso movement in which Bach, a master of the art of illusion, creates a rich polyphonic texture with many voices from what is, essentially, a solo melody instrument. (Bach later transcribed this solo movement for orchestra in two of his cantatas; Stokowski also had fun with it). Five dance movements follow, beginning with the Loure, a stately court dance, and a calming movement to balance the brilliance of the opening Preludio. Then comes a Gavotte en rondeau, in which the elegant dance section has brief episodes interspersed between what has become one of Bach’s favorite dance melodies. The two Menuet movements are well contrasted and are followed by a purposeful Bourrée and an invigorating Gigue. “There is no greater joy than playing Bach,” says Gil Shaham.


— Program notes © 2021 Keith Horner.  Comments welcomed:

About the Artist

Gil Shaham
Gil Shaham is one of the foremost violinists of our time; his flawless technique combined with his inimitable warmth and generosity of spirit has solidified his renown as an American master. The Grammy Award-winner, also named Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year,” is sought after throughout the world for concerto appearances with leading orchestras and conductors, and regularly gives recitals and appears with ensembles on the world’s great concert stages and at the most prestigious festivals.

Highlights of recent years include the acclaimed recording and performances of J.S. Bach’s complete sonatas and partitas for solo violin. In the coming seasons in addition to championing these solo works he will join his long time duo partner pianist, Akira Eguchi in recitals throughout North America, Europe, and Asia.

Appearances with orchestra regularly include the Berlin Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Israel Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris, and San Francisco Symphony as well as multi-year residencies with the Orchestras of Montreal, Stuttgart and Singapore. With orchestra, Mr. Shaham continues his exploration of “Violin Concertos of the 1930s,” including the works of Barber, Bartok, Berg, Korngold, Prokofiev, among many others.

Mr. Shaham has more than two dozen concerto and solo CDs to his name, earning multiple Grammys, a Grand Prix du Disque, Diapason d’Or, and Gramophone Editor’s Choice. Many of these recordings appear on Canary Classics, the label he founded in 2004. His CDs include 1930s Violin Concertos, Virtuoso Violin Works, Elgar’s Violin Concerto, Hebrew Melodies, The Butterfly Lovers, and many more. His most recent recording in the series 1930s Violin Concertos Vol. 2, including Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto and Bartok’s Violin Concerto No. 2, was nominated for a Grammy Award. He will release a new recording of Beethoven and Brahms Concertos with The Knights in 2020.

Mr. Shaham was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, in 1971. He moved with his parents to Israel, where he began violin studies with Samuel Bernstein of the Rubin Academy of Music at the age of 7, receiving annual scholarships from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. In 1981, he made debuts with the Jerusalem Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic, and the following year, took the first prize in Israel’s Claremont Competition. He then became a scholarship student at Juilliard, and also studied at Columbia University.

Gil Shaham was awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 1990, and in 2008 he received the coveted Avery Fisher Prize. In 2012, he was named “Instrumentalist of the Year” by Musical America. He plays the 1699 “Countess Polignac” Stradivarius, and lives in New York City with his wife, violinist Adele Anthony, and their three children.


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