Some Composer/Player Relationships Were Meant to Be. Others… Not So Much

Mason Bates and Gil Shaham harmoniously partnered together on Bates’ Nomad Concerto, which saw its premiere in January 2024

By Cliff Hall | From the July-August 2024 issue of Strings Magazine

When Johannes Brahms was working on final edits with Joseph Joachim on his Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77, in 1879, it was often more of a wrestling match than a productive collaboration. “I am very impatient to see later how often and how energetically your handwriting appears in the score and parts, whether I will be ‘convinced’ or will have to ask someone else—which I would not like to do. Is the piece, to be brief, good and practical enough as a whole that it can be printed?” wrote an irritated Brahms to Joachim in February of that year.

It was, perhaps, not a partnership fated to go well. (Brahms once penned in a letter to Joachim’s wife, “I became aware of the unfortunate character trait with which Joachim so inexcusably tortures himself and others… The simplest matter is so exaggerated, so complicated, that one scarcely knows where to begin with it and how to bring it to an end.”) Thus, it took a few months, but the ever-dramatic Joachim wrote back in May—with some serious passive aggression.

“The end of the second solo is probably better thus,” he wrote. “It’s pleasanter to play… Make use of my fingerings at your discretion. I think they are not superfluous: but you have to follow your own opinion on this subject.”

And so the tussling continued throughout their lives, save for a five-year spell when Joachim stopped talking to Brahms altogether as a result of that aforementioned letter to Joachim’s wife, Amalie, about his character that convinced a court to let her keep custody of their children in their divorce. Composer and violinist reconciled, however, when Brahms gave Joachim a peace offering—the opportunity to work with him again on his Double Concerto for Violin and Cello, Op. 102.

Fortunately for the state of the art, this kind of perpetual squabbling doesn’t define all composer/player relationships. For Mason Bates and Gil Shaham, for example, there was no such drama whatsoever.

Gil Shaham with violin
Gil Shaham. Photo: Chris Lee

The pair harmoniously partnered together on Bates’ Nomad Concerto, which was co-commissioned by the Philadelphia Orchestra and San Diego Symphony; the world premiere was conducted by Yannick Nezét-Séguin and performed by Shaham last January.


“I feel very lucky to have been part of that collaboration. Mason is so open and very easy to talk to,” says Shaham in a phone interview. “When I play the Brahms concerto, I wish I could ask Brahms some questions and, in this case, I feel I could probably pick up the phone and talk to Mason about anything.”

Bates echoes this positive energy.

“Gil is a dream to work with!” writes Bates in an email. This piece (Bates’ second violin concerto) was inspired by the idea of creating a poetic concept around the concerto form. “Our first dinner at Cafe Luxembourg was really the start of the collaboration. Gil whipped out his iPhone to show me stunning videos of inspiring Romani musicians in Hungary,” says Bates. “The idea of a ‘nomad’ concerto came when Gil told me about a wonderful encounter… and I thought his old-world sound would be a perfect fit for a concerto exploring the music of wandering cultures.”

composer Mason Bates
Mason Bates. Photo: Ryan Schude

Drawing inspiration from the rich tapestry of folk dances originating in Eastern Europe, Bates created four movements (Song of the Balloon Man, Magician at the Bazaar, Desert Vision: Oasis, and Le Jazz Manouche) as the piece traces a wayfarer’s journey across various realms.

“I started by researching a huge variety of music from wandering cultures—from ‘Gypsy’ (now called Romani) players to Jewish folk music to Persian Bedouin cultures,” says Bates. “Then I put those aside and let myself reimagine that music in my own style.”

After the initial burst and a period of composition, Bates emerged from the process with a clear narrative but then eagerly welcomed Shaham’s input. “Gil offered so many brilliant suggestions as drafts were sent over email, but nothing beats being in the same room. Up in Saratoga, New York, he gave me the idea of a gradual accelerando in the ‘jazz’ finale,” says Bates. “He also had a lot of ideas regarding the left-hand pizzicato that accompanies the opening tune.” 


What makes Shaham and Bates’ partnership so special is a real sense of play in the joint effort. “The whole thing was fun… I was so excited about it from the first thing that he sent,” says Shaham. “We’d wanted to do something for a few years before.”

Mason Bates, Yannick Nezét-Séguin, and Gil Shaham
Mason Bates, Yannick Nezét-Séguin, and Gil Shaham. Courtesy of Mason Bates

The alliance sprouted its roots in 2016 when the pair first met on a bill celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Sioux City Symphony Orchestra. The show started conventionally enough in the historic Orpheum Theater with Shaham performing Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D major. It took a turn, however, when the concert moved into a tent across the street, where Bates spun records as his alter-ego DJ Masonic with his group Mercury Soul, who are well known in the San Francisco arts scene for creating a unique auditory and visual performance experience. Shaham joined the club-like atmosphere and played solo Bach with electronic enhancements as a part of the group’s performance. 

The ease of this first mashup between Shaham and Bates is also mirrored in their musical cooperation in Nomad Concerto. One example of this is an ornament Shaham improvised in the third movement, Desert Vision: Oasis. “With the theme of nomadism at the center of the concerto, the music of the Jewish people seemed essential to include. Gil has made a special study of this music and has such an authentic way of bringing it to life,” says Bates. 

This slow movement, based on a beautiful Jewish folk tune called “Ani Ma’amin,” inspired Shaham. “It reminded me of the style of ornamentation that a singer might make on a melody, so I tried this kind of grace note,” says Shaham. In an Instagram post of Bates and Shaham discussing the piece, Bates enthusiastically noted his approval. “That grace note—it’s a ‘Gil thing’ that’s now going into the score,” said Bates.


As a result of this synergistic approach, Bates was still making changes up until the premiere. “Even at those concerts in Philly, Mason was still sitting there with the score,” says Shaham. “I think he made several dozen changes even that first night.”

Mason Bates, Yannick Nezét-Séguin, and Gil Shaham take a bow onstage
Yannick Nezét-Séguin, Gil Shaham, and Mason Bates. Courtesy of Mason Bates

One reason that Brahms felt the compulsion to work with Joachim on his violin solo music is that he wanted the pieces to be idiomatic to the instrument. Shaham found that Bates didn’t have this requirement, despite his not being a string player himself. “Everything he wrote from the very beginning was eminently playable. He really is very fluent,” says Shaham. “There are so many memorable moments. I love that opening melody and the transformation it takes. I love that quick middle movement. I think the slow third movement is very deeply moving, and that jazz manouche fits perfectly in somehow. It makes the whole thing particularly uplifting.”

Bates’ method, which tries to balance the virtuosic demands of the violin with the overall musicality and emotional content of the concerto, was an educational process for him as well. “It takes a while for a composer to appreciate that there are different kinds of virtuosity. Technical virtuosity—the kind of lightning-fast figuration one finds in études—needs to be matched by lyrical virtuosity. A superstar performer can convert whole concert halls with the turn of a phrase or subtlety of tone,” says Bates. “I’m learning to balance these different kinds of playing so that players can showcase all of their skills.”

After all their squabbling over revisions, Brahms and Joachim put their differences aside and embarked on a tour of Transylvania in the fall of 1879. During this journey, their promotion of the forthcoming publication of the Violin Concerto was essential to the process of securing its place in the musical canon alongside other significant concertos by Mendelssohn and Beethoven. Joachim continued to champion the piece in Berlin with his Hochschule Orchestra (even though the press derided this choice), and eventually the piece was established in the mainstream repertoire.

So with all the creative energy spent crafting this sublime concerto and two performances completed (the San Diego Symphony gave a West Coast debut last February), is this how the Nomad Concerto can continue its life past the premieres? “Even though there are great masterpieces being written right now, it seems like Shostakovich was the last composer whose pieces entered the standard rep,” says Shaham, who will be playing it at Saratoga Springs and Nashville this summer. “I feel like that’s changing, and I really do think this piece has a good shot.”