A musician’s full-scale encounter with Bach, at whatever stage on the artistic path it occurs, is a watershed event capable of upending not just his or her approach to Bach’s music, but an entire artistic gestalt. That is what happened to Gil Shaham, a process that began about a decade ago. Like every violin student, he’d learned Bach’s solo sonatas and partitas, but he’d never felt ready to perform them in public.
Finally, “I decided I would make a concerted effort — no pun intended — to play them, thinking that if I don’t start now, it won’t ever feel more comfortable,” Shaham said last week from Chapel Hill, N.C., where he was in residence at the University of North Carolina.
Like others before him, Shaham became obsessed with Bach’s six mysterious creations, church sonatas alternating with dance suites. The fruits of this process, which can be heard — and seen — when he plays them at Sanders Theatre on Sunday, involved both turning back the clock to Bach’s time and adding an entirely modern aspect to his performance.
Like other violinists, Shaham turned to the instruments and equipment of Bach’s day for inspiration. As part of what he jokingly called his “midlife crisis,” he bought a bow modeled on a German implement from the 1730s — what Leopold Mozart, in his violin treatise, called “a round bow” — and strung his instrument with gut. He even altered some of his fingerings.
Usually when Shaham tours, he uses his modern setup instead of his Baroque gear, as he will when he plays in Boston. It’s a matter of practicality, he said. And the insights that he got from his experiments turned out to be portable: “The reality is, you can do everything with a Baroque bow that you can with a modern bow and vice versa.”
Once the reorientation started, Shaham found himself “questioning every choice that I made,” a process whose impact becomes clear in the tempos he chose for his recent CD recordings of the Bach. They are unfailingly lithe — indeed, some are blazingly fast.
To demonstrate, he takes his violin out of his case and puts a reporter on speaker phone. “I used to play the G-minor Fugue like this,” he says, adopting a familiarly somber pace. The fugue is marked “Allegro” (fast) and “Alla breve” (two half notes to a bar). Shaham noticed that the overture to the First Orchestral Suite is a fugue marked in the same way. “And people play it like this,” he says, playing the main subject at a much zippier pace. “So it made me wonder, what would happen if I played the G-minor like that?”
More important than the actual tempo is the fact that Shaham’s Bach swings, a quality that became central to his vision of the pieces. “The counterpoint is so beautiful in Bach, and the harmony is so rich, that maybe it’s tempting to understate the rhythmic vitality of this music,” he said. “I like the word ‘swing,’ because I think the music almost always dances.”
The most radical aspect of Shaham’s live performances is his decision to play the Bach with the “accompaniment” of films by the New York-based artist David Michalek, whom the violinist met at the Zankel Hall premiere of a piece by Du Yun. This forward-thinking idea arose from the two artists ruminating on Bach’s audience for these pieces. That audience, Shaham explained, would have understood intuitively a network of social meanings and religious signifiers encoded in Bach’s dance suites and sonata movements.
Since that social context can’t be reproduced today, “we were wondering if there was some way for an audience today to have a film, or some sort of visual metaphor to go along with the music, to enhance the experience,” he said.
Michalek’s films are played back in super-slow motion, so that what seem to be still pictures or portraits are actually changing at a glacial pace. “Say you have a face —
Shaham said little about the precise content of the films, other than that some are portraits and some involve dance. Nor did he specify exactly how the films could enhance the listening experience. But by matching his own vital performances of the music with Michalek’s incrementally slow videos, Shaham seems to be inviting us to take ourselves out of the flow of time, to set up a space in which it’s possible to ask ourselves why this music grips us with the existential force it always exerts.
“It’s not the only way to listen to Bach, of course,” he said. “But I guess my feeling is that it’s one way, and I hope people think of it as a beautiful way to listen to Bach.”
Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston. At Sanders Theatre, Sunday at
5 p.m. Tickets $35-$85. 617-482-6661, www.celebrityseries.org
David Weininger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davidgweininger.
A previous version of this story misstated the concert venue. It is taking place at the Sanders Theatre.