Busy Shaham takes matters into own hands with record label

After starting his own company, violinist finds artistic advantages to owning his music

May 26, 2011
By: James Chute – Union Tribune San Diego

Gil Shaham is a busy man. How busy? The highly regarded violinist did a phone interview on the commute from Philadelphia, where he was performing with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to his home in New York City.

“The train is jampacked,” said Shaham. “I tried to get a seat on a quiet car, but I’m talking to you standing between the cars.”

Ever since he filled in for an ailing Itzhak Perlman with the London Symphony while still a teenager, Shaham has become a household name in classical music. He performs the Beethoven Violin Concerto this weekend with the San Diego Symphony at Copley Symphony Hall in the final concerts of the orchestra’s Centennial Season. He’ll be back in San Diego Aug. 6 for the La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest.

Q: I just became a follower of yours on Twitter (joining a crowd of 2,550), and I liked you on Facebook (one of 1,388). How important is social media?

A: I have to confess I don’t really tweet or post messages. From what I understand, it’s very important; a lot of people get information that way. (My record company and my management) said a few years ago I had to start putting information on Twitter and Facebook and they handle most of that for me. Every few months, I’ll have a look. But I don’t really know how people stay on top of everything.

Q: You had been recording with Deutsche Grammophon (considered the top classical music label) before you started your own label, Canary Classics. Why start your own company?

A: Technology has really set us free. We can now make the highest-quality recordings with relative ease, pretty much on a laptop and at a fraction of what it cost when I started. I remember in my first recording sessions in the ’80s, early ’90s, there were these huge sound booths, with machines the size of refrigerators. Those things were just prohibitive for somebody to make a professional-quality recording. Nowadays, it really is as easy as getting the right software for your laptop.

I guess I also learned with experience there are a lot of advantages of owning your own music. Besides the kind of legal and business advantages, there are a lot of artistic advantages. You can control so much when you own the rights to your music. When we started, it was a bit of a risk. I felt like maybe I was very lucky. I was young enough to take on that risk, and on the other hand, I was around long enough to have been somewhat established. It’s worked out.

Q: So far, most of the releases have been chamber music, including an album of chamber music by Faure.

A: That was something Deutsche Grammophon had turned down for a few years. I had come to them and said, ‘Look, can we record the chamber music of Gabriel Faure?’ And they said, ‘No, the market won’t sustain it, there simply isn’t demand out there for it.’ We were very proud because once we released it, it was on the best-seller charts in this country.

Q: With a piece like the Beethoven Violin Concerto, which you’ve played hundreds of times, how do you keep it fresh? What informs your interpretation?

A: I love this part of my job. With these masterpieces of art, it’s like a sculpture; you can look at it from an infinite number of angles and from every angle, you can learn something and you can appreciate something else and you can love something else.

Even when playing the Beethoven Violin Concerto, being a musician is a little like working in a kitchen. There’s always something that needs to be done. It’s never complete. There’s always something that needs tinkering, or rethinking, or maybe even starting over. There’s always lot’s to do.