New Classical Tracks: China's most popular classical workby Julie Amacher, Minnesota Public Radio
Gil Shaham's new disc presents two violin concertos -- one a 19th-century standard, the other written 80 years later in Communist China -- but both cast in lush romantic style.
St. Paul, Minn. — "The story is so pervasive. It's kind of like Goldilocks and the Three Bears, everybody knows it."
That's violinist Gil Shaham talking about the popularity of The Butterfly Lovers Concerto, by Gang Chen and Zhanhao He.
"The legend is very well known in China," Shaham continued. "People always say it's similar to Romeo and Juliet."
What really amazes Shaham is the love that audiences have had for this piece since the moment it was premiered in 1959.
"I didn't know the piece until I was in my 20s," Shaham said. "But once I learned it, I just was amazed to find it everywhere. When you're in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, every shopping mall you go to, you hear the Butterfly Lovers Concerto."
"I remember I'd be jetlagged, and I'd be jogging in the park in Hong Kong, and there'd always be groups of people in the park doing Tai Chi, and always one or two groups were listening to The Butterfly Lovers Concerto," said Shaham.
In 2004, the Singapore Symphony Orchestra celebrated its 25th anniversary. They invited Gil Shaham to perform China's most popular work, along with Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto.
In The Butterfly Lovers Concerto, the violin needs to imitate the sound of an erhu, which is a two-string Chinese fiddle.
Gil Shaham studied with erhu specialists to master similar inflexions and sliding pitches unique to that instrument. This style of playing is heard right away in the first movement as the violin plays the opening melody.
This piece is a translation of a Chinese opera into symphonic form. It tells the tale of a young heroine who sets off to attend university, dressed as a boy. As a girl, she's prohibited from furthering her education. She meets and falls in love with a young scholar.
Back home, her father has promised her to the son of a rich nobleman. She agrees to marry the nobleman on the condition that her wedding procession passes by the tomb of the young scholar, who has died of a broken heart.
This part of the concerto is a favorite of Shaham.
"I love the buildup toward the scene at the graveyard," said Shaham. "I love that scene because it really is the violin versus the orchestra, sort of the young woman versus society."
As the wedding procession passes the tomb of the young scholar, lightning strikes and the earth opens up. The bride jumps into the grave to be buried alive, only to be resurrected as a butterfly with her true love.
A reprise of the opening melody is played by the violin, as the woodwinds symbolize the free-spirited butterflies.
It works well to pair The Butterfly Lovers Concerto with the Tchaikovsky violin concerto, as Shaham does here. In fact, the Butterfly Lovers Concerto is often referred to as the Tchaikovsky of the East.
Because Russian-trained professors taught at the Shanghai Conservatory, Russian repertoire was used as a model well into the 20th century. What makes this performance of the Tchaikovsky special is the cadenza Gil Shaham uses in the first movement.
"In this recording, we went back to Tchaikovsky's original score for the cadenza. I must say now I prefer that one. I always feel that maybe Tchaikovsky's was the best solution after all," said Shaham.
Tchaikovsky's violin concerto is a popular favorite that's been recorded many times. The Butterfly Lovers Concerto is so well-loved that it's heard everywhere in China, but few recordings exist.
By pairing these two lush works on this live concert recording, Gil Shaham and the Singapore Symphony Orchestra give us the best of both the East and the West.