Violinist Gil Shaham dazzles at Davies Symphony Hall

Bill Swerbenski/Courtesy

A deep-seated anticipation permeated the atmosphere of San Francisco Symphony’s Davies Symphony Hall in the moments before violinist Gil Shaham walked onstage. Then, simultaneously with the excitement of an overeager child and the confidence of a brilliant performer, the Israeli violin virtuoso entered to spirited applause. After a friendly nod to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (popularly known as MTT), the symphony took off with Brahms’s Violin Concerto in D major.

Shaham stood wide-eyed and overjoyed at the front of the stage, on the verge of giggling with glee. And when he launched into his first solo, he played as if it were the greatest thrill of his life. Wholly possessed by the music, his urgency suggested he was holding the weight of the entire world in his violin. Shaham managed to display the gamut of emotion in the piece, all the while playing with unparalleled exuberance and astonishing skill. At a respite between solos, he even lowered his ear to his violin, as if listening to its feelings before giving them voice.

A truly special performer, Shaham is more compelling than a firework show — if faced with the choice, one would prefer to watch him. Boundlessly expressive, he is capable of showering the audience with rain before parting the clouds to reveal a glorious sun. Shaham coaxes his violin not merely into playing sequences of notes, but into telling entire narratives, crying out in pain or singing with delight.

His contagious energy was matched boisterously by the symphony orchestra, whose interpretation of Brahms was hypnotic and enchanting. There were times, nonetheless, when they too could not help but watch Shaham with admiration. MTT in particular seemed to relish Shaham’s presence, taking pleasure in his feverish enthusiasm. The audience, moreover, was in raptures, and by the time the piece finished, sat mesmerized for several seconds before remembering to give a standing ovation.

Apart from the Brahms concerto with Shaham, the symphony orchestra also played Wagner’s Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin, as well as Brahms’s Piano Quartet No. 1. The Wagner piece, booming with all the bravado the symphony could muster, made for a commanding opening. Here MTT stepped onto the conductor’s podium and curtly prompted an exhilarating sound similar to that of a splintering chandelier. In this macho, muscular piece, the orchestra set the tone for the night; the frantic energy built up here would never subside.

After Wagner came Shaham, followed by Brahms’s Piano Quartet, played not on piano but according to Arnold Schoenberg transposition of the piece for orchestra. At this point, once the audience had been sufficiently dazzled, it was MTT’s moment to command the stage. Rather subtle  before, MTT now carried the weight of the performance in a manner powerful and assured. Under his lead, the symphony orchestra soared through an impassioned interpretation of sparkling, sumptuous melodies, playing with scintillating tempo and temperature. This piece served as a full-bodied, rich dessert after Shaham’s violin feast: a sweet, sonically lush treat.

Yet overall, this night belonged to Gil Shaham, which, considering how splendid the rest of the performance was, is a testament to his prowess. The man is simply thrilling to watch, a true virtuoso. He plays with such pure pride, intimacy and pleasure that the audience cannot help but be jubilantly overawed. Each note from his violin stirs the soul, leaving a lasting impression and awakening all the latent fervor therein.