Lenox — Gil Shaham, the happiest violinist in the world, was (before the sky fell) scheduled to play the Mendelssohn concerto at Tanglewood this summer in the Koussevitzky Music Shed. That would have been great fun. But what we got from Gil instead — streaming this week from Studio E at Tanglewood’s Linde Center for Music and Learning — was even greater fun: a program of pieces for unaccompanied violin, including a new work by Boston-based composer Scott Wheeler called “Isolation Rag.” (Yes, Wheeler wrote it while in pandemic lockdown, so it is “new music.” But no, it doesn’t sound at all like any other example of contemporary violin literature.)
The reason Shaham is known as the happiest violinist in the world is that he smiles onstage more than any other violinist in the world, even during the trickiest of passages. But “smile” really isn’t the best word. Imagine the grin on a 10-year-old prodigy’s face when he steps onstage for the first time in front of a major orchestra. That is the kind of glee Gil Shaham radiates every time he performs.
The selections from Mr. Shaham’s program were by turns exhilarating, provocative, edifying, dulcet and thrilling:
Scott WHEELER – “Isolation Rag”
Max RAIMI – “Anger Management”
J.S. BACH – Partita No. 3 in E for solo violin, BWV 1006
William BOLCOM – Suite No. 2 for solo violin:
“Dancing in Place”
“Lenny in Spats”
PROKOFIEV – Sonata in D for solo violin, Op. 115
Not all concert violinists are capable of so thoroughly entertaining you for 41 minutes and 17 seconds all by their lonesome. It takes, in addition to garden-variety virtuosity, some kind of rare mojo to do what Mr. Shaham does, and that is exactly why it is so rewarding to watch him do it. He works his instrument the way an illusionist flourishes cards: You see it with your own eyes when he plays an impossibly fast run of triple stops, but you can’t quite comprehend what you’ve just witnessed. But, above all, his tone is to die for, and the sound seems to come from an instrument much larger than the one he holds in his hands. Voodoo?
Honestly, it’s a bit of a miracle whenever Gil Shaham plays the violin.