With irresistible honesty and bonhomie, at age 42, Gil Shaham is still the same person I interviewed two decades ago when he performed as a soloist with the Moscow Philharmonic. Quite a feat considering the world of inflated egos he lives in, where nothing alters his humble personality, sure of himself and without the need to prove anything to anyone. He is one of the greats of this era and comes from a generation that produced many extraordinary violinists.
Shaham is still the same man, (his father, astrophysicist Jacob Shaham was a violinist, and his mother was a pianist and also a geneticist). Born in Illinois, he grew up in Jerusalem and debuted as a soloist at age ten with the city’s orchestra. After winning the Claremont Competition, he enrolled in New York’s Julliard School. “That day, I considered leaving the violin to become an electrician,” he says “I arrived there believing I was someone special, and I found a hundred Itzhak Perlmans my own age … it was an invaluable lesson in humility.”
Chance or coincidence, the name, Itzhak Perlman, will continue to guide his career. Gil studied with his teacher, the renowned Dorothy De Lay, and his unexpected consecration came the day Perlman fell ill and cancelled a concert in London. “To this day I do not know who suggested my name, the fact is that the idea of getting on the Concorde and not having to recite the Canterbury Tales in an upcoming English exam, prompted me to accept immediately”, he remembers. “Just ten minutes before the concert, I realized people were expecting Perlman and not me, and then I wanted to run back to school.”
Since that fateful night, Gil Shaham has traveled all over the world, performing with major orchestras and conductors, recording albums and reaping ovations. After that Gil became Shaham, but he remained Gil.
But the story continues. Along the way, he met Adele Anthony, a talented violinist from Tasmania, whom he married and had three children, his main reasons to go back home in New York’s Upper West Side: “I used to make travel plans, but now I just want to come home and be with them, take them to school or play basketball with the eldest.” If a conversation with Gil means taking the time to talk about domestic vicissitudes and an unwavering devotion to the family, meeting the couple means facing a boisterous troupe where Elijah, Ella Mei and Simon take the lead, or rather the baton.
In every sense, his career and his approach are exemplary. Gil was a child prodigy — not to mention that his brothers and Orli and Shai played the piano from the age of four—but his parents never pressured him and only insisted he should do whatever would make him happy.
At some point, he came to question whether he really wanted to devote himself to music or live somewhere else “I had to adapt to the idea of going to New York with a scholarship. My knees were still soiled from playing soccer, and all of the sudden I was in this anonymous cage where nobody knew me, which today I would not trade for anything else because it is heaven for a musician.”
Firmly established as one of the greatest exponents of the instrument, unlike other violinists, he dedicates only the necessary time to promoting his work; he has too much to do and has even founded his own record label: Canary Classics, which undertakes projects of special significance. He still admires Heifetz and Oistrakh as much as he did when he was a child and says “though in the past violinists had greater expressive freedoms, today we are not playing machines as some suggest, we are all very different and do not sound alike.”
Indeed, Gil sounds very different than many of his eminent contemporary colleagues. In addition to a remarkable virtuosity, he has a broad and fleshy, deep and smooth sound that goes back to his idols, Heifetz and Oistrakh, and why not, a 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, who apparently was Benjamin Franklin`s lover when he was ambassador in Paris before the Revolution. The truth is that it is an experimental violin built by Stradivarius in 1699; it is more elongated, and if it could talk, we would learn quite a few secrets … not to mention that, during its stay in Venice, it was used by the great Vivaldi.”
With or without Stradivarius, his performances of the great violin concertos are inescapable references to Beethoven, Brahms (directed by Claudio Abbado), Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Sibelius, Elgar and a group he affectionately calls “the ones from the 30`s”, explaining, “it’s just an excuse to play my favorite music” before he adds, “no matter if they are, coincidentally, works composed at the same time, as a great wave of talent broke out between the two wars.”
Gil is talking about Barber concertos, the second by Bartok, the concertos by Walton, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Milhaud, Hindemith, and, in particular, one by Alban Berg titled Concerto to the Memory of an Angel, which has been his constant companion. If Shaham has mastered each of them, there is one that, although composed in 1945, stylistically belongs to the glorious prewar Viennese generation: the Korngold Violin Concerto of which he is perhaps the definitive interpreter as proved by the exceptional CD he recorded in 1993 alongside the Barber Concerto directed by André Previn. The poignant lyricism of the Austrian composer exiled in Hollywood, finds in Shaham the ideal venue to achieve an immaculate balance between the decadence and virtuosity of the time without giving rise to excess or sentimentality.
And it is with this composition, premiered by Heifetz himself that Shaham returns to Miami, seconded by the Cleveland Orchestra under the baton of Franz Welser-Most, for a captivating Viennese program that includes works by Schubert and Johann Strauss, Jr. It will be a pleasure to welcome someone who has grown and matured as a man and an artist but fortunately remains the same endearing human being I interviewed twenty years ago. ■