SINGAPORE - Watching Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham's fingers fly on his instrument inspired composer Bright Sheng to write a concerto specially for him to play.
Shaham, 42, will premiere Let Fly in Singapore on Saturday at the Esplanade Concert Hall with Singapore Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of conductor Lan Shui.
The concert also features works from Richard Strauss and launches the orchestra's four-weekend celebration of the composer's music.
"When Shaham plays, the notes sing out of his violin, that was very inspiring," Sheng, 58, says on the telephone from his home in New York.
He first heard the violinist at an outdoor concert several years ago.
The three-movement concerto for violin and orchestra is inspired by a type of folk-singing called "flying song" from Yunan province in China. "The idea is to open the mouth and sing in the open air, around the fields, and let the music carry," says the Shanghai-born American composer.
Let Fly is co-commissioned by the SSO, the Detroit Symphony and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
It opened the Detroit Symphony Orchestra's season in October and will be performed by the London BBC Symphony on May 9.
It has been expanded by some five or six bars for Saturday's performance here.
"Singapore is getting a new set so this will be in a way a brand new version," says Sheng, who followed the rehearsal and performance with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with a "half-hour patch session" to edit the concerto into a "perfect version".
He has a bit more emotion than usual invested in this concerto, since it incorporates a lullaby he wrote for his only child, three-year-old Fayfay.
Her name is a homonym for the word "fly" in Chinese.
"Let Fly is also the expectation of a father to his child.
"When you have a child, you expect they will take off and that's where the musical image came from," he says.
At October's inaugural concert, Shaham directed his violin to Fayfay and her parents in the box seats, and was delighted when she bobbed her head and clapped to the tune she recognised.
"She's such a sweetie," the New York-based violinist and father of three says on the telephone from Israel, where he was playing under the baton of renowned conductor Zubin Mehta. "I was very honoured to play the premiere."
Shaham is looking forward to Saturday's performance as he has worked often with the SSO. He feels a special connection to Singapore because his wife, violinist Adele Anthony, was born here, though her family migrated to Australia.
He is known for favouring modern and contemporary American composers - a 1999 collaboration with American composer-conductor Andre Previn won them a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance - but says Let Fly is special.
"What's amazing for me in his writing - besides the beautiful narrative - his writing for the violin I found to be very original. I think he went out of his way to write something that makes the violin sing." Shaham had only one problem with the score.
Between the second and third movement is a cadenza where Sheng suggests that the soloist improvise.
It is an indication of the trust Sheng has in him.
Yet the violinist felt awe and horror on seeing the sheet music for the first time.
"This made me so nervous, I called Bright. He's like, 'If you want to, you can add something'. I said, 'Look Bright, you're the composer, I'm the violinist'."
In the end, they compromised. Sheng sat with him for an hour until he worked out what he wanted to play. "I feel so lucky," Shaham says with a laugh.
"Playing this piece has been the highlight of my year."
GALA: GIL SHAHAM - STRAUSS FESTIVAL:
EIN HELDENLEBEN (SSO)
Where: Esplanade Concert Hall
When: Saturday, 7.30pm
Tickets: $25, $48, $68, $88, $108 and $128 from
Sistic (call 6348-5555 or go to sistic.com.sg)
Info: There will be a pre-concert talk at 6.30pm at
library@esplanade. For details, go to www.sso.org.sg
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