Kudos for a Critic?

by Sedgwick Clark

Frankly it was astonishing: A disingenuous “culture” editor of “all the news that’s fit to print” shunts a classical-music critic from his 35-year beat into a position called “general culture reporter,” and within a day 500 angry readers sign a petition to reinstate him. Two days later the number had grown to 1,100! By noon today (9/12), the number had risen to 1,357. And remember, we’re talking about a critic of the high art that is supposedly dying faster than the printed newspaper.

My phone calls and e-mails haven’t let up since I blogged on the subject last week.

Gil Shaham’s 20th-century Concertos

Just to show that I’m not squeaky clean either, I’m about to quote from a press release! It’s about the upcoming season of Musical America’s 2012 Instrumentalist of the Year, Gil Shaham, who has been engaged in “one of the most imaginative programming concepts in years,” to quote our own words.

Now entering its fourth season, Shaham’s long-term exploration of iconic “Violin Concertos of the 1930s” was conceived when he realized how many outstanding 20th-century violin concertos derived from that fateful decade. The coming year brings the project’s first recording, on which he joins forces once again with David Robertson, his brother-in-law and frequent musical partner. Due for release on the violinist’s own Canary Classics label, the new album features three of the decade’s most evocative concertos, performed with the world-class orchestras of three nations, all with Robertson on the podium: Stravinsky’s (1931) with the BBC Symphony OrchestraBerg’s (1935) with the Dresden Staatskapelle; and Barber’s (1939) with the New York Philharmonic, with whom Shaham previously collaborated to impress the New York Times with their “rich-toned, gracefully shaped performance.”

In the concert hall, Shaham performs no fewer than seven violin concertos of the 1930s over the coming season. Barber’s is the vehicle for his return to the New York Philharmonic, now with music director Alan Gilbert (Nov 29 – Dec 1), and for appearances with Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony (Sep 20–22). He reprises the Stravinsky with both the San Francisco Symphony led by Michael Tilson Thomas (June 18–20) and the Orchestre de Paris under Nicola Luisotti (Jan 9–10), and plays the Berg with Michael Stern directing the Kansas City Symphony (May 31 – June 2). Other 1930s masterpieces showcased over the coming season are William Walton’s concerto (1938-39), which headlines the violinist’s appearances with the Chicago Symphony and Charles Dutoit (Nov 8–11); Benjamin Britten’s (1938-39), which he undertakes with both the Boston Symphony conducted by Juanjo Mena (Nov 1–6) and the Montreal Symphony under James Conlon (Sep 26); Bartók’s Second (1937–38) with the Orchestre de Paris led by Paavo Järvi (March 20–21); and Prokofiev’s Second (1935) on Japanese tour with the NHK Symphony (March 7–11).

I combed with fingers crossed through those two paragraphs for the name “Hindemith,” who wrote what I consider the most underrated Violin Concerto of the 20th century. When Gil received his Musical America award I goaded him into promising that he would add the concerto to his repertoire, and I hope that I’ll see it on a New York Philharmonic schedule soon.

While awaiting the Shaham rendering of this supremely melodic masterpiece, those who wish to test my opinion may listen to Isaac Stern’s Columbia recording with Bernstein and the NYPhil now on Sony Classical. I had the pleasure of sitting next to Stern at a Carnegie Hall season announcement lunch a decade or so ago and told him of my regard for this piece because of his recording and that it was my favorite violin concerto of that century. He replied that, much as he loved the Hindemith, he would personally choose the Bartók Second and Berg concertos as his favorites.

Ah, the memories of Stagedoor Sedgie.

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