By Kyle MacMillan
Gil Shaham often tells his children to take risks, try new things and not be afraid of making mistakes. But the renowned violinist realized a few years ago that he had not done a very good job of following his own advice, so he decided to break out of his comfort zone and develop an innovative 21st-century way to present Johann Sebastian Bach’s Sonatas and Partitas for Solo Violin (BWV 1001-1006).
“I think of this as a little bit of maybe practicing what I preach,” he said.
Shaham teamed with New York video artist David Michalek, who has created a group of short films to be projected on a screen behind the violinist as he performs the six works. The resulting multimedia collaboration will make its debut during a national tour timed to coincide with the March 10 release of Shaham’s recording of the complete Bach set on his Canary Classics label. The tour begins March 1 in Chicago as part of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Symphony Center Presents series, continues in late March in California, and concludes April 23 with a performance at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. (See complete schedule below.)
“I hope people come to see it with an open mind,” Shaham said. “Some of the images will surprise people. Some might shock people. But I found them to be mesmerizing and beautiful and very, very musical.”
Michalek has gained international attention for his multifaceted body of work, which includes large-scale outdoor installations, in which he projects super slow-motion films on giant screens. These projects have been shown in such high-visibility sites as Lincoln Center, Trafalgar Square, and Gendarmenmarkt in Berlin. Among the best-known such works is Slow Dancing, which consists of 43 video portraits of dancers and choreographers from around the world. Each subject was filmed using a high-speed, high-definition camera that records 1,000 frames per second compared to the standard 30 frames. Because the resulting videos last 10 minutes but show only five seconds of action, the movement is barely perceptible.
The artist has continued his extreme slow-motion techniques for this project, finding thematic links to Bach’s works without trying to specifically interpret them. The challenge was to create images for music never intended for such purpose and to make sure the two mediums complemented each other. Michalek asked himself such questions as: “What does it mean to couple this kind of pure music with an image? What can an image do? What can it do advantageously? What can it do problematically?”
Some experts believe the three pairs of sonatas and partitas relate to the New Testament stories of Christ’s Nativity, Passion, and Resurrection. Rather than attempting to directly depict the first of those, for example, Michalek chose to suggest new life by filming a budding six-year-old violinist playing her instrument, zeroing in on her face and tiny fingers. “That’s all it is,” he said. “That’s the image. So, while we hear Gil onstage, playing the heights of violin music, we see a little being on screen holding the same instrument.” For another section, he created a kind of filmed still life, with a crystal ball, skull, and just the movement of sand slowing dropping through an hourglass.
Like Bach’s Six Suites for Unaccompanied Cello, the composer’s 1720 works for solo violin are considered among the most profound and expressive statements ever written for the instrument. Out of respect, Shaham postponed taking them on until about 10 years ago, when he finally began performing them in public. “And then I learned what so many other musicians have said before — that there is really no greater joy than playing Bach,” he said. “When I go to my practice room, I’ll start practicing, and the time will just pass. Suddenly, it’s two hours later.”
As part of his activities while serving as the 2013-14 artist-in-residence with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich, he performed Bach’s solo violin works as part of three chamber-music programs. Because the ensemble is one of two orchestras that operate under the auspices of the Bayerischer Rundfunk, Shaham decided to take advantage of its easily accessible recording studios and engineers to record the set last summer. “It seemed like a good moment to do it,” he said.
The album will be the 14th release by Canary Classics, the label Shaham founded in 2003 as a way to have the freedom to record what he wanted without the commercial pressures associated with larger labels. It has since issued recordings featuring the violinist’s sister, pianist Orli Shaham, and his wife, violinist Adele Anthony. “It’s sort of a small family business,” the violinist said. The label was begun with a simple business plan: use the proceeds from the last recording to pay for the next. “I feel very lucky that so far we’ve been able to do that.”
A big surprise for the violinist’s longtime fans is that he has brought a lighter-sounding, period-performance approach to his playing of the Bach solo sonatas and partitas. “I feel like now is probably the most rewarding time ever to be studying Bach, to be playing Bach, to be listening to Bach, because we have had so much research about it, and so, for example, I love the recordings of (Dutch conductor) Ton Koopman (and the Amsterdam Baroque Orchestra) of the orchestral suites. So, I began experimenting. I guess it’s part of my mid-life crisis.”
To play these works, he reconfigures his 1699 Stradivarius with a baroque-style bridge made by New York luthier Adam Crane and gut instead of the usual steel strings, and he employs a baroque-style bow commissioned from New York bow maker Markus Laine. At the same time, Shaham has incorporated such period-performance practices as less vibrato and faster tempos. “Some people have been surprised at my tempi, and I understand that. I certainly am playing much of this music faster than I used to, and I’m convinced for now that I’m happier with it.”
As he delved into Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, Shaham said the spirit of experimentation in the music rubbed off on him and he began thinking about possible new ways to present this music. He realized today’s audiences do not understand many of the cultural references that would have come naturally for Bach’s contemporaries, such as what a bourrée is and how the music for it sounds.
So he wanted to provide new entry points into these works for 21st-century audiences. That’s when he thought of Michalek’s installation, Slow Dancing, which he saw in the Lincoln Center Plaza in 2007 and realized might be just the vehicle he was looking for. “I thought the way he shot his films was so beautiful, and especially the way he used time, the play with light and time, and I thought that could easily lend itself to music.”
The two first met at Café Luxembourg, near Lincoln Center, and quickly hit it off. It helped that Michalek was a fan of Bach and owned several recordings of the solo violin works. They later got together for further discussion at Michalek’s apartment, with the two of them sitting on the floor of the artist’s little library — Shaham breaking down the structure of the sonatas and partitas and playing examples on his violin, and Michalek showing excerpts from his other works. Soon their collaboration was firmly under way.
As an outgrowth of projects like Slow Dancing, Michalek does commissioned family portraits using a similar slow-motion technology. One day, he visited a client’s house, where one of his filmed diptychs of boys ages six and eight happened to be running at the same time that a recording of cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing a Bach solo suite was playing. To the artist, it appeared that the boys were having a response to the music he was hearing, and watching them and listening at the same time enhanced his appreciation of the music.
“It didn’t seem to damage to music,” he said. “It didn’t seem to fight with it. It was just a very simple mechanism that allowed me to get into a sort of state of active listening that I could sustain. Not that I can’t sustain it without the image. But it helped me do it differently, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe this is a way in.’”
Michalek set about creating short slow-motion videos to accompany each section of the six Bach works. The high-definition videos will be projected behind Shaham on screens that will vary in size depending on the venues where he performs. Michalek’s technical director will travel with the violinist and oversee the presentation of the visual imagery, which has to be manually queued to the duration of the violinist’s playing.
In all, the artist shot more than 250 takes, and he spent recent weeks deciding on which ones to include in the work. Shaham finally had a chance to see the final product earlier this week, and he called it stunning. “I feel very honored to be part of David’s vision in this project,” he said. “I think it’s a testament to Bach that the power of his music transcends centuries and cultures and mediums and inspires people.”
Here is the schedule for Gil Shaham’s Bach concerts with projections by David Michalek:
3 p.m. March 1
Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago, IL
(312) 294-3000 or (800) 223-7114; cso.org
7:30 p.m. March 27
Weill Hall, Green Music Center, Sonoma State University, 801 E. Cotati Ave., Rohnert Park, CA
(866) 955-6040; gmc.sonoma.edu
7:30 p.m. March 29
Walt Disney Concert Hall, 111 S. Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA
(323) 850-2000; laphil.com
7 p.m. March 31
University of California at Santa Barbara, Grenada Theatre, 1214 State St., Santa Barbara, CA
(805) 893-3535; artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu
7:30 p.m. April 23
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Foellinger Great Hall, Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, 500 S. Goodwin Ave., Urbana, IL
(217) 333-6280; krannertcenter.com
Kyle MacMillan recently marked his 25th anniversary as a music critic and reporter. After serving 11 years as fine arts critic for the Denver Post, he is now a freelance journalist in Chicago, where he contributes regularly to the Chicago Sun-Times and writes for such national publications as Opera News and The Wall Street Journal.