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Why Is Beethoven's Only Violin Concerto Revolutionary? Ask Gil Shaham

Wikipedia Commons
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770 - 1827)

Violinist Gil Shaham became enthralled by Beethoven's Violin Concerto as a child. Years later, he's still moved by its power. 

Listen to Gil Shaham play Beethoven's Violin Concerto with The Philadelphia Orchestra on WRTI 90.1, Sunday, June 21st at 1 PM and Monday, June 22nd at 7 PM on WRTI HD-2

Violinist Gil Shaham chats backstage with WRTI's Susan Lewis.

Shaham is in his dressing room, talking about the magic in Beethoven's violin concerto; why it captivated him when he was growing up and would listen to the recording by David Oistrakh over and over again; why it  continues to inspire awe in him, as he performs it with major orchestras. 

He recalls one such performance, when he was listening to the orchestra begin, as he stood facing the audience in the hall.  In the midst of this story, he pulls out his violin to illustrate the music he was hearing.  

"The melody," he says, and plays the orchestral line.  "It transforms to minor, and then Beethoven kind of spins it." 

He stops playing and smiles at the memory of how, while listening, he caught sight of a young teen in the audience, who was also obviously transformed.  Her expression, says Shaham was rapt: "She was like, this is the most beautiful melody I've ever heard in my entire life!  And that's exactly what this piece does." 

Credit Luke Ratray

Beethoven wrote the work quickly in 1806, in an apparent flash of inspiration. Premiered by celebrated violinist Franz Clement, it was unlike any concerto the audience had heard. 

"It's so much bigger, not just in terms of the orchestra," says Shaham. "The whole scope, the whole story it tells,  the whole emotional journey of the piece, is just that much bigger than anything that came before. It really is revolutionary in the way that only Beethoven can be revolutionary." 

The lyrical first movement is followed by hymn-like second movement, which leads into the joyous dance-like finale.

"When we get to the last movement, it becomes that uplifting dance, the rondo."  Gil Shaham picks up his violin again.  "Every moment of this piece is inspired and touching."

Gil Shaham, master of an expansive repertoire of concertos and other violin works that span centuries, glows with a thoughtful, gentle smile.  "We're very lucky to hear it, and to play it."

Susan writes and produces stories about music and the arts. She’s host and producer of WRTI’s TIME IN online interview series, and contributes weekly intermission interviews for The Philadelphia Orchestra in Concert series. She’s also been a regular host of WRTI’s Live from the Performance Studio sessions.