‘Hebrew Melodies’ all in the Shaham family

Gil Shaham
Jewish Journal

By Rick Schultz

Gil Shaham does his most eloquent speaking with his violin, but as a recent interview by phone from his home in New York revealed, he’s not a bad singer either. 

Over the course of an hour, Shaham rendered in a soft baritone voice memorable snippets from Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, Bartók’s “Concerto for Orchestra” and several passages from his latest recording, unofficially titled (the disc isn’t due out until April) “Hebrew Melodies: Nigunim.” 

At one point, reminded of the saying, “Silence is better than speech, but song is better than silence,” Shaham said, “I love that. We should have put it in the CD booklet.” 

The violinist’s accompanist for “Hebrew Melodies,” a wide-ranging selection of traditional and contemporary Jewish music, is pianist Orli Shaham, his younger sister. The disc is on his own aptly named Canary Classics label, established in 2004. After all, a canary is a songbird, and in Hebrew, “canar” means “violinist.”  

During the interview, Shaham also sang a few key sections from Brahms’ Violin Concerto, which he is scheduled to perform with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Feb. 21-24. (The program also includes works by Wagner and Schumann.)

The violinist, who has collaborated with Dudamel many times, including with the Israel Philharmonic, counts the conductor as a good friend. “I met him when he was this very famous young kid, maybe 25 years old,” Shaham, 42, said. 

If it’s true that good friends make good music together, then the Brahms concerto sounds like a perfect fit for Shaham and Dudamel. 

“I think Brahms’ concerto is about his ideal of friendship,” Shaham said. “He wrote it for Joseph Joachim, a lifelong friend. The opening has this kind of heroic melody with unison, then it tries again with a canon, and then again with the solo violin. And there’s this Hungarian improvisation, until it reaches a moment where Joachim plays the melody, and he finally has a friend. He finally has a counterpoint in the violas.”

Shaham said he never grows tired of the Brahms concerto but wishes he had more opportunities to perform works like Ernest Bloch’s “Baal-Shem.” The Swiss-born American composer’s three pictures of Chasidic life concludes “Nigunim” with the uplifting “Simchas Torah.”

“It’s hard to program in concert because it’s 20 minutes long,” Shaham said. “Violinists choose to play the middle-movement ‘Nigun’ most often, but the other two are equally beautiful. There are these amazing harmonies, almost impressionistic.”

Shaham said the music contains both secular and sacred messages. Indeed, the Chasidic nigun, a type of ritualistic and improvisatory vocal tune, falls somewhere in-between the two, expressing joy in prayer, but also aspiration and longing. 

“This music has been at the heart of Jewish life, stirring souls for thousands of years,” Shaham said. “The idea is that it transcends language. If I played a nigun for somebody who only speaks Arabic, he would understand what I was saying. For somebody who only speaks Hebrew, he would understand the same thing.”

Shaham added: “It has this interesting property. You start on a note and improvise around it, and you end on the same note. And then you can go on another trip and improvise some more. That’s how these melodies are built.” 

“Nigunim” also includes settings of traditional songs and dances by Josef Bonime (“Danse hebraïque”), Leo Zeitlin (“Eli Zion,” based on the Yom Kippur prayer) and Joseph Achron’s Two Hebrew Pieces, Op. 35. But it was Achron’s Hebrew Melody, Op. 33, that was the most personal for Shaham.

“A lot of these pieces, Orli and I have played since we were kids,” he said. “As a kid, I remember my grandfather singing Achron’s ‘Hebrew Melody’ in their home in Jerusalem.” 

Shaham, whose grandparents escaped from Poland and came to Israel, sang the melody, imitating his grandfather’s strongly accented take on the tune.

“I was very lucky to visit my grandparents shtetl, where they lived on the Polish border,” Shaham said. “And the thing is, despite overwhelming poverty, these shtetls were so rich with art and music and literature. It must have been a welcome escape from the reality of their harsh lives. It’s hard for me to hear this music without seeing the ghetto in my mind.”

Shaham said he was interested in Eastern European composers who, around 1900, started to create concert music based on Jewish folk tradition, the same way that Edvard Grieg used Norwegian music. Composers continued writing concert music based on Jewish heritage throughout the 20th century.

But when Orli Shaham proposed a commission for a new piece, the violinist liked the idea of bringing Jewish music into the 21st century. Israeli composer Avner Dorman’s “Nigunim” (Violin Sonata No. 3), became a co-commission between Shaham, his sister and the 92nd Street Y in New York, where it was first performed in 2011.

“It turns out there’s a lot more to Jewish music than augmented seconds and cantorial incantations,” Shaham said. “Avner’s idea was to write music of the 10 lost tribes. So the first movement is based on a Libyan incantation, the second is a Georgian wedding dance, and the last movement is based on a Macedonian 7/8 rhythm.”

While the violinist is given many opportunities to play soulful arias on the disc’s other tracks, in Dorman’s “Nigunim,” which Shaham called a “masterpiece,” he and his sister are equal partners, with Shaham accompanying the piano in many passages.

Another contemporary score, and perhaps the heart of the new disc, is John Williams’ suite of three pieces from Steven Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List.” Especially in the concluding third part, “Remembrances,” Shaham said he had to be careful to let the music speak for itself. 

Shaham first heard Williams’ score months before the film opened in 1993, while put on hold by a Madison Square Garden phone operator.

“I was trying to get Knicks tickets, and the hold music was the ‘Schindler’s List’ recording with Itzhak Perlman and John Williams conducting. I thought, ‘This is so beautiful. How could I be a violinist and not know what this piece is?’ And I just kept calling the Garden so I’d be able to hear this music.”

Shaham has since performed the work several times with Williams conducting. On disc, the violinist captures not only the sadness of so many lost lives, but also a sense of pride in endurance and perseverance. 

“Williams said there’s something comforting about this rocking melody, like rocking or singing to a baby,” Shaham said. “Every piece of music is a whole world, you know?”