During this time of war in the Middle East, constant news and anxiety for the Israeli hostages in Gaza and Palestinians in Gaza who are used as human shields by a terror organization, I wondered if we really could relax enough to enjoy a concert in the beautiful John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts’ Concert Hall. Upon entering the Concert Hall, it felt like another world, being in the beautiful surroundings on a night out in the nation’s capital.
The Jan. 18 concert featured Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A Minor, with the world-renowned violinist Gil Shaham and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 – the “Great Symphony” – in C Major. The Concert Hall was full on this cold night with music aficionados, a number of them following full scores, conducting to themselves or tapping their toes.
Schubert’s 9th Symphony filled the second part of the program. As explained by Maestro Gianandrea Noseda, there is some debate about whether it is number, 7, 8 or 9, and that the numerical order does not matter. It was written between the time of Beethoven’s Eroica and his Ninth Symphony, the Choral Symphony. Beethoven was still alive. Schubert never heard his C Major Symphony performed, as it was left to Schumann to convince Mendelssohn to conduct its premiere.
A few weeks ago in an interview, Noseda and Yigal Meltzer talked about Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Meltzer thanked Noseda for coming to Israel during these challenging times. Noseda commented that it is important during these times to understand how the value and beauty of music bring people together.
At the age of seven, Shaham moved to Israel from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, to begin serious violin studies at the Jerusalem Rubin Academy of Music and Dance. He was later supported by the American-Israel Cultural Foundation, which raises funds to support young musicians with scholarships. In the 1980s, he became a scholarship student at Juilliard and also attended Columbia University.
Shaham’s bio is replete with accomplishments and accolades. “One of the foremost violinists of our time; his flawless technique combined with his inimitable warmth and generosity of spirit has solidified his renown as an American master. The Grammy Award-winner, also named Musical America’s “Instrumentalist of the Year,” is sought after throughout the world for concerto appearances with leading orchestras and conductors, and regularly gives recitals and appears with ensembles on the world’s great concert stages and at the most prestigious festivals.”
Antonín Dvořák is best known for his New World Symphony, which he composed in New York City, and which premiered in Carnegie Hall in 1893. Some consider this work to be the most popular symphony ever composed, certainly a perennial work with orchestras, with dozens of recordings, and it was received with a remarkable audience response when first performed. Dvořák is among the most prolific composers of symphonies, concertos, chamber music, ten operas and songs. He hailed from Prague, Czechoslovakia, and was offered a prestigious position at New York’s oldest music college.
He is an important advocate of nationalistic music, which is based on thematic material from folk culture and native culture. In this regard he encouraged other schools of nationalistic music – Russian and Jewish-Yiddish songs – as material worthy of classical development. This eventually inspired the Jewish national movement for authentic thematic material evolving into Israel’s advocating folk music, trope music and song material from the rich Yiddish, Sephardic and Mizrachi repertoire as a basis for new classical music.
Dvořák, like Schubert, was described by Professor Albert Weisser as “a friend of the Jews.” Dvořák composed his violin concerto for his Hungarian Jewish friend, one of the great musicians, violinists and conductors of the 19th century, Joseph Joachim, who had premiered both the Beethoven violin concerto and the Brahms violin concerto. Joachim commissioned Dvořák to compose a violin concerto.
Joachim spent his childhood as a member of the Köpcsény Kehilla (Jewish community), one of Hungary’s prominent “Seven Communities” under the protectorate of the Esterházy family.
Between 1879 and 1882, Dvořák and Joachim collaborated on the score. In 1882, Joachim performed the work for Dvořák at a private rehearsal, leading to final revisions by the composer. Joachim never played the work in concert. It is a matter of speculation that it did not compare well enough with the Beethoven or the Brahms violin concerti.
Franz Schubert was commissioned by Cantor Salomon Sulzer of Vienna’s Seitenstettengasse Temple. According to Professor Joshua R. Jacobson, Schubert was the “only great composer before the twentieth century to compose a setting in Hebrew of the liturgy for the synagogue.” “Salomon Sulzer, a Hazan and influential composer widely admired for his baritone voice, reigned over the cantorial art at Vienna’s Seitenstettengasse Temple for 45 years, starting in 1826” (Franz Schubert by Graham Johnson). The work for chorus and soloist, was called “Die Allmacht” and is also known as “Great is Jehovah” and “The Omnipotence.” Sulzer was known for singing Schubert’s songs and among his honors is a stamp issued by Austria. In his last year, Schubert set Psalm 92 in Hebrew and Miriam’s Victory Song.
The performance of the Dvořák Violin Concerto in A Minor was as much a testament to the excellence of the National Symphony Orchestra as it was to Shaham. As maestro, Noseda led with great precision, impressive dynamic contrasts, rhythmic crispness, intensity in gesture and response. It was a total interpretation, as close as possible to the composer’s instructions. This dramatic devotion to serving the composer came across to the audience who were thrilled with the resulting performance.
Shaham played this concerto with elan and total commitment, yet the first and second movements, being less familiar to audiences, are frequently compared to other great concerti, such as the Brahms or Mendelssohn Violin Concertos, or the Korngold and Barber. One follows the Dvořák composition expecting the lyrical melodies found in his Cello Concerto or his symphonies and wonders about the popularity of this work without such a soaring melody.
Nevertheless, the first two movements were as much a concerto for orchestra as for violin, and the third movement brought Dvořák’s dedication to Czech folk dance and folk music to create a delightful, energized dance-like movement which is successful in every way. Shaham’s playing was always solid, confident and beautifully on pitch from the highest notes to the lowest range. He delivered the solos and ensemble moments paired with individual instruments and small ensembles in a sensitive manner, never overshadowing members of the orchestra, while playing with breathtaking brilliance and emotion.
Noseda brought the best energy and Italian love of music, engendering the most responsive playing from the orchestra. His mastery is akin to the great Italian conductors such as Arturo Toscanini and Claudio Abbado, without exaggeration. He has great stature and command and is athletic and precise in his conducting, which is a joy for the audience and orchestra. The audience brought the soloist and conductor out three times for standing ovations and an encore. It was a thrilling evening of music capped off with the Schubert Symphony. This audience of classical music was amply rewarded for coming out on a cold winter evening, and for a while were nourished by the thought that perhaps music could bring us together.
Arnold Saltzman is a composer of opera, symphonies and chamber music based in Washington, D.C., and Rabbi/Cantor Emeritus of Adas Israel Congregation. He was awarded the Bloom Jewish Music Foundation Prize for 2023.