Gil Shaham: One of a kind

Gil Shaham
Knight Arts

By Sebastian Spreng

This season alone, he is scheduled to perform with 20 orchestras on three continents. He is expected in Paris and just played in Munich, but he calls from Berlin, elated after performing Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto with the Philharmonie, and exclaims, “I can’t wait to see the Miami sun!”  At 42, Gil Shaham is the same person I interviewed two decades ago, when he performed as a soloist with the Moscow Philharmonic in Fort Lauderdale. Quite a feat when navigating the world of inflated egos in which he lives and through which he moves unscathed. Far from the common denominator, Shaham is a rara avis.

He is still that same Illinois-born child of scientists (his father, the lamented astrophysicist Jacob Shaham, was also a violinist, and his mother, a geneticist and pianist) who grew up in Jerusalem, debuted as a soloist at the age of 10 and later, upon winning Israel’s Claremont Competition, ended up at the Juilliard School. “That day, I thought of giving up the violin and becoming an electrician. I arrived thinking I was somebody and found a hundred Itzhak Perlmans my own age… It was an unforgettable, invaluable lesson in humility,” he says.

By chance or coincidence, the name Itzhak Perlman kept showing him the way. Gil studied under Perlman’s teacher, the legendary Dorothy DeLay, and he acquired unexpected star status the day Perlman cancelled an appearance at a London concert. “Just the idea of traveling on the Concorde and getting out of reciting The Canterbury Tales for an English exam prompted me to accept immediately. Barely ten minutes before the concert, I realized the audience expected Perlman and not me to play Sibelius’ Violin Concerto, and that’s when I wanted to run back to school.” Fortunately – for him and everyone else – it was too late. The acclaim he received was the dessert to flying on the supersonic jet. From then on, he was number one in a generation of titans of the violin. At that moment, he became Shaham, though he never stopped being Gil.

Along the way, he met Adele Anthony, the talented Tasmanian violinist whom he married and with whom he has three (for now) children, who are his main reason for going home to the Upper West Side. “To think that I used to enjoy making travel plans, but now I just want to be back with them, take them to school or, in the case of the eldest, to basketball practice.” If chatting with Gil entails discussing domestic vicissitudes and devotion to family, meeting the whole family means facing a noisy troupe in which Elijah, Ella Mei and Simon run the show.

In every sense, Shaham’s career and focus set a role model. He was a child prodigy on the violin – siblings Shai and Orli played the piano from the age of 4 – though his parents never forced him, but rather encouraged him to do what made him happy. Neither was he a promotional product and, while at Juilliard, considered whether he truly wanted to follow the path of music or live elsewhere. “I had to adapt to New York. I had to shake off the dust I had on my knees from playing so much soccer and make my way inside this anonymous cage that, today, I wouldn’t trade for any other place, because this is heaven for a musician.”

Firmly established, he devotes just the right amount of time in contrast to other artists. He has too much to do, and that includes managing his own music label, Canary Classics, through which he makes dream projects come true. “Recently, and inspired by Eric Wen, we recorded Ningunim, a CD of Hebrew melodies that includes Avner Dorman’s beautiful sonata of the same name, and earlier, one dedicated to Pablo Sarasate, a composer I love whose centennial I celebrated with a wonderful tour of Spain – with Adele and the kids, of course. It was a great experience to come into direct contact with such a rich tradition… You can’t praise [Sarasate’s] Andalusian Serenade enough. I like it as much as his Aragonese jotas and Basque zorcicos, as well as his Zapateado and Caprice Basque. They are all little jewels!”

Inevitably, the subject of the present condition of the music industry comes up. “These are ambiguous times for music in general, classical as well as popular. The abundance of free material poses immense challenges; it’s very difficult for the industry to compete. On the other hand, technology has freed musicians. You can do almost anything by pressing a button. I remember going to recording sessions at studios equipped with those Dolby devices the size of restaurant’s refrigerators. Now you can do the same thing on a small computer. In a certain sense, the world of music is like that of journalism now. We share a future that’s uncertain but also fascinating.”

He still admires Heifetz and Oistraj as much as when he was a child and says that “though in the past violinists had greater expressive freedom, today’s violinists are not performing machines, as some suggest. We are all very different and don’t sound alike.” To tell the truth, Gil sounds very different from many of his illustrious colleagues. In addition to his unfailing virtuosity, he possesses a “big” sound, full, deep and smooth, reminiscent of both Heifetz and Oistraj, and also of the young Perlman. That unmistakable sound is enriched by the legendary Stradivarius he plays. “It is known as the ‘Comtesse de Polignac’ because it belonged to the countess they say was Benjamin Franklin’s lover when he was ambassador to Paris prior to the French Revolution. The truth is that it was an experimental violin that [Stradivari] made in 1699 – with a longer and narrow body– and it is also true that if this violin could talk, we would learn some secrets… not forgetting that during its sojourn in Venice it served no less a person than Vivaldi, perhaps at the first performance of The Four Seasons…”

With or without the Stradivarius, Shaham’s performances are legendary, whether he’s playing Beethoven, Brahms – with his adored Claudio Abbado – Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Elgar or the group he affectionately calls “of the 1930s.” “It’s only an excuse to play my favorite music, above and beyond the fact that they are works coincidentally composed over the same period, the result of that unstoppable wave of talent that surged between the two wars.” He’s referring to Barber’s violin concertos, Bartók’s Second, those of Walton, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Hindemith and, especially, that of Alban Berg. That concerto, which the composer dedicated “To the memory of an angel” has always been at the top of his repertoire. “I’m now recording them under my label. One is the relatively unknown Concerto Funebre that Hartmann composed in Nazi Germany and smuggled into Switzerland. It’s a great piece and I loved working with the fantastic Spanish director Juanjo Mena.”

In Shaham’s career there is a place of honor for Korngold’s Violin Concerto in D Major, a work that, even if written in 1945, implicitly belongs to the pre-war generation. To conclude that he is its unrivaled performer, one has only to listen to his 1993 recording, in which he also plays Samuel Barber’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, conducted by André Previn for the DG label.

The exalted lyricism of the Austrian composer exiled in Hollywood finds its ideal vehicle in Shaham, who achieves a delicate balance between the 1930s’ decadence and virtuosity without yielding to excesses or sentimentalism. And it’s with this composition, first performed by Heifetz, that Shaham is returning to Miami, accompanied by the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Franz Welser-Most, for a not-to-be-missed Viennese program that includes Schubert’s Symphony No. 2 and the waltzes of Johann Strauss, Jr. It will be a pleasure to welcome again someone who has grown and matured as a man and as an artist, yet remains the same likeable, honest and unaffected person I first interviewed 20 years ago.