Violinist says friendship is message in Brahms' Violin Concert

Christian Steiner
Violinist Gil Shaham is set to perform with the IRIS orchestra Saturday.

Christian Steiner Violinist Gil Shaham is set to perform with the IRIS orchestra Saturday.

IRIS Orchestra with Gil Shaham

8 p.m. Saturday at the Germantown Performing Arts Centre, 1801 Exeter. Tickets: $55. For more information, call 901-751-7500 or go to gpacweb.com.

Violinist Gil Shaham's frequent visits to Memphis are a music lover's delight.

Saturday he performs the Brahms Violin Concert with the IRIS Orchestra, a work that Shaham says is one of the great masterpieces in Western music.

"I joke and say the Brahms Violin Concerto is more Beethoven's Ninth than Beethoven's Ninth is Beethoven's Ninth," he says. "In the coda of the last movement of the Brahms, there's a march that's considered an allusion to Beethoven's Ninth. Not only that, it's more Bach's Chaconne than Bach's Chaconne is Bach's Chaconne, because there a passage in the first movement that alludes to that piece."

Having established the work's influences and reputation, Shaham adds that he finds it a difficult one to play. "In many ways, Brahms was out to carry things just a little bit further," he says. "It has a very personal, deep message — it's a piece about friendship."

The underlying storyline is about the longtime friendship between Brahms and violinist Joseph Joachim. "They were German Romantics and discussed the issues of the day, including if young men should get married or stay single."

They even had competing mottoes. Joachim espoused the notion of "Free but lonely." Brahms famously countered with "Free but happy." Joachim eventually did marry and Brahms remained a lifelong bachelor, but their friendship, with its ups and downs, survived.

"In this piece, you start out with a beautiful melody, which in my mind is Joachim's heroic melody," Shaham says. "The first time you hear it with the violas, it's set in a dark register without any harmony, something kind of empty to it.

"Then the same melody comes back a few minutes later as a kind of a canon. The violins have it at a different time from the cellos and it doesn't quite work out."

But it then takes on what Shaham calls a Hungarian, gypsy, dramatic improvisation, "kind of like a Don Giovanni drama to it." Eventually, he says, "you finally hear this idyllic setting for this melody. It's a friend's melody, like the friendship of Joachim and Brahms."

Ultimately, Shaham says, "The Brahms Violin Concerto does what great music should do — it takes you on an incredible journey and from that opening melody to the final chords 30 minutes later. You arrive at such a feeling of satisfaction, like having gone on a journey or having read a novel or seen a tremendous drama.

"It's one of the great masterpieces. And we violinists are very lucky to have it."

Also on Saturday's program is the Sibelius Symphony No. 3 and Swiss composer Frank Martin's 1949 Concerto for 7 Winds, Percussion and Strings. The latter work, Maestro Michael Stern says, will spotlight some of the IRIS musicians.

"It's jazzy, fun and exciting, and you need seven absolutely first-rate players. And it's safe to say we have no shortage of brilliant players."

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