VC INTERVIEW | Gil Shaham and The Knights Discuss New Recording
Violinist Gil Shaham and Eric Jacobsen, Co-Artistic Director of The Knights, discuss their new CD: "Beethoven & Brahms Violin Concertos"
The Violin Channel recently sat down with the pair to discuss working together on Gil's first solo release in almost five years and his first recording of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
Eric, tell us a little about The Knights that you founded with your brother.
After a long Saturday at Juilliard, about 15-20 friends were often spotted sprinting down the escalator to get to Penn Station hoping to catch the train to Long Island. We would go to Long Island and would spend time reading music together, eating, drinking, and hanging out. Just by being together, we really found a shared like-minded way of playing music.
We started playing a couple of String Orchestra concerts just for fun in local areas, not really with the ambition of even setting up an orchestra. A few years later, we started playing bigger concerts with a full orchestra, and I started conducting more. I feel like as humans, we want more sooner, but I feel this progression has felt very organic. I feel so lucky that we get to release this album right now, and also that we continue to get to play together.
Wonderful. Can you explain to us the whole concept of eliminating the barriers between the audience in the music? What initiatives are you taking?
We speak to the audience quite a bit. I might, as the conductor, do it most often, but members of the orchestra join in on that conversation. There's a way of immediately connecting with humans with joy and humor. I try to bring these emotions to the stage. And yet, it's incredibly serious what we do. The dedication we, the audience, and the entire institution need to make that one concert happen, to make something that people can remember, is an Everest of a journey.
We also try to connect with our audiences prior to an event in a theater, whether it's educational outreach events or engagement activities to connect with local community members. Hopefully, we can end up translating to an audience in a new way — eliminating the barrier of "Oh, this is hard to understand or to contemplate." In reality, no, we're just making beautiful memories together.
Gil, can you tell us about working with The Knights and the beginning of this new CD project?
The Knights have created such a welcoming community, so much so that I don't think anybody feels like an outsider with them. Our first rehearsal for this CD project was over at the Jacobsen's house. They extend such a kind spirit to us, the board of The Knights, and the people who support them.
When you say reaching out to audiences, I remember playing in Caramoor, and people would bring their kids to the performances. Eric called, and I was very lucky to be included. Some of the musicians took time before the concert talking to all the kids there. It really was very remarkable. They are artists of such high caliber, such great masters that they allow themselves to think out of the box, and that's really wonderful. I'm very happy to be a small part of The Knights' journey.
How did this project come about?
We had recorded a Prokofiev concerto. We did some tours and I loved it because we really had a lot of time to work with one another. We had rehearsals where everybody speaks and shares a lot of ideas, and every idea is tried. Rehearsals were truly deep dives into the music.
Somehow on that tour, I particularly remember when we were in Chicago, The Knights played the Eroica Symphony. I just thought it was the most remarkable performance, just fantastic. It sort of felt right to me with the spirit of Beethoven — that kind of freshness and revolutionary feel that you get from this composer. After discussion, we decided to go ahead and record the Summer of 2019.
It was your first solo recording in some time. How did you decide that this was the time and the repertoire for this?
It was something we wanted to do for a long time. I'm very lucky because there are often ideas for recordings, but sometimes they don't come about for many different reasons. But with this one, everything came together.
You’ve recorded the Brahms concerto before with Berlin in 2006. It looks like you haven't recorded the Beethoven before, have you?
That's correct. It was a great honor for me; the Brahms concerto was performed and recorded during the final season of Claudio Abbado and the Berlin Philharmonic when they went on tour. I never got to record the Beethoven single concerto. And obviously, these two works are the absolute highest gems in the repertoire.
You have probably played these pieces since maybe late teens, with your interpretation constantly evolving. How does it evolve as you get older and get more familiar with it —and is there a point when you say, "I am ready to lay down my thoughts on this for the legacy and for eternity?"
I've always loved these pieces, and like you said they really are kind of the pinnacle of our repertoire. It helped me in my interpretation to understand their relationship and historical context. They’re kind of like sisters born of the same muse. I often think of the Brahms Violin Concerto as being autobiographical and relating to his friendship with the great violinist Joseph Joachim. Maybe it's a statement about the ideal of friendship in general too. But, there's no question that the Beethoven Violin Concerto played a big role in their relationship.
For my interpretation, when I think of the Beethoven Concerto, the word revolutionary always comes to mind. Nothing of that length or emotional scope had been written before. It really was a leap forward in terms of violin concertos. With the Brahms too, I found maybe an even larger harmonic language, emotional scope.
Gil, you are performing on a different instrument than you normally play on, the 1719 Stradivarius from the Rare Violins In Consortium. Can you tell us about this instrument and how it differs from your Stradivarius? We've also noticed you've been playing on a modern instrument as well recently. We would love to hear how it's going between the three instruments.
You're absolutely correct. I was very lucky with this recording, and in general, that I am able to play this beautiful 1719 Stradivarius from Rare Violins In Consortium in New York. They are a wonderful group of very generous supporters who own these instruments, who give violinists a voice by means of giving them wonderful violins to play. Actually, this recording was one of the first times I played on that instrument, which I think has a very different character. I would say it has a stronger base.
And, as you know, I also own the 1699 Stradivarius, the “Countess Polignac,” which is very beautiful. I've also been playing a new violin recently which I enjoy very much. Although I haven't recorded with it yet, I've done many live performances with that violin.
At one point I started experimenting with strings. For a while, I was playing just gut strings, and I loved the quality of the sound with them. I think I was in San Diego, which is very humid, and the strings started squeaking and not staying in tune; it was really a struggle to play them. So, using the different instruments helped me find a balance. You note which violins work in which environment.
Wonderful. So, with us being in quarantine the past year, this question is for both of you guys. What do you feel that you've learned during this period about yourself, maybe about your playing, and even about your family?
Well, I feel so lucky that I'm still able to play concerts. Of course, I've lost tons of guests conducting jobs and things like that, but I can’t imagine trading the last year. That would mean not seeing my family as much as I have, not putting my daughter to sleep, not playing music with her, not singing with her, etc. These things made me so happy. When I sit back and think about it, I feel a strong amount of guilt because I know that's not how it is for so many people right now. I think it's important that when we do come out of this, as musicians, we have to be there to help people dip their toe back into reality, or whatever the new reality will be — and I love that.
It is true that my family was very lucky. I've loved spending time with my family this year, they're completely sick of me! These may be considered tragic times, but there still are silver linings. We've all had a chance to take time and examine our lives. We are now acutely aware of the things we used to take for granted. Ironically, I think the world has changed for the better, in some ways. People have lost so much, people have lost loved ones, livelihoods, dreams — yet we've come to treasure our shared humanity more than anything. And that really does speak to our art. In any performance experience, it’s really the love of music and passion for this art that brings us all together. Perhaps, we knew that before but maybe now, there's a kind of heightened awareness of how special this is.