INSTRUMENTALIST OF THE YEAR 2012
By Dennis D. Rooney - Musical America
He is a superb fiddler and an imaginative programmer as well. His retrospective of the remarkable series of violin concertos composed in the 1930s—including those by Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Barber, Walton, Prokofiev, and many others to come—is the kind that awards are made for.
Reaching one’s 40th birthday is a milestone in most lives. Violinist Gil Shaham celebrated his on February 19, 2011, one of three important events in that year. It marked the 30th anniversary of his first public appearance, at the age of 10, when he played with the Jerusalem Symphony and conductor Alexander “Sasha” Schneider. The year also saw the arrival in September of a third child to him and
his wife, violinist Adele Anthony.
“I know that something happened to me when I turned 40,” says Musical America’s Instrumentalist of the Year. “Especially as an artist, you’re forced to examine what your place is, what contribution you have made to society. I feel that at 40 there is some added experience that I didn’t have before. I feel that my thinking about music and violin playing is clearer than ever before.”
His estimation is obviously shared within the industry and among his peers. In 2008 he performed Sarasate works in a Live from Lincoln Center telecast, which was also the occasion of his receipt of the esteemed Avery Fisher Award, presented by his good friend Gustavo Dudamel. Last May he took part in Carnegie Hall’s 120th Anniversary Gala, in a Great Performances telecast on PBS, playing Beethoven’s “Triple” Concerto with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, pianist Emanuel Ax, and the New York Philharmonic conducted by Alan Gilbert.
Approaching 40 was perhaps also the springboard for an imaginative project that Shaham began exploring in his concerts in 2009: a retrospective of the remarkable series of violin concertos composed in the 1930–40 decade. Stravinsky, in 1931, leads off the series, followed the next year by the Szymanowski Second Concerto. Milhaud composed his Concertino de printemps in 1934. The Berg and Second Prokofiev Concertos (as well as one by the American, Roger Sessions) were composed in 1935, then Schoenberg’s in 1936 (famously rejected by Heifetz and not premiered until 1940). Nikolai Miaskovsky and Ernest Bloch each produced one in 1938. As it was for Hollywood, 1939 was a banner year, witnessing either the completion or first performance of concertos by Bartók, Hindemith, Walton, Britten, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Walter Piston, and Samuel Barber.
Many of those concertos were influenced by the turbulence and adversity of the decade. Shaham is not surprised that it is so, especially for artists who were “sometimes forced to emigrate or even flee, often having to leave everything behind and create a new life in order to survive.” The mood of impending dread is especially perceptible in the Bartók and Britten works, but Karl Amadeus Hartmann was the only one to make it overt in his Concerto funebre.
Shaham has already performed Berg, Stravinsky, Bartók, Barber, Prokofiev, and Hartmann. He was heard with the New York Philharmonic last season in the Walton, and he plans in the coming season and beyond to add more to an annual schedule of approximately 50 concerts that he performs each year. He considers himself lucky to be able to restrict himself to that number, “so that when I go to be with music I enjoy it even more.”
His three decades before the public have been a steadily ascending trajectory. He was born in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, the second son of Israeli research scientists. His father, Jacob (1942–1995), became a world-renowned astrophysicist. His mother, Meira, is a cytogeneticist. In 1973, the Shahams, with Gil and his elder brother, Shai, returned to Israel. Gil was 7 when he began violin studies with Samuel Bernstein at Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music. Bernstein’s ability to transmit “his passion and infectious love of music” may be, Shaham says, the most important lesson that he learned
from his teachers. At 9, he attended the Aspen Music School to study with Dorothy DeLay and continued with her at the Juilliard School, where he was admitted in 1982.
It was in 1989 that Gil’s first big break came when he was chosen to replace Itzhak Perlman for concertos with the London Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas. Chicago’s Stradivarius Society offered to loan him the violin he has played ever since, the 1699 “long pattern” Strad known as the “Comtesse de Polignac.” It now belongs to him and he speaks of it as if were a human relationship. “I love this violin. There’s a ‘cushion, a depth, a glow.’ I think those words fit this violin particularly well. I have been playing it for 20 years and still feel I have so much to learn from it. The palette is so enormous.”
In 1990, he received an Avery Fisher Career Grant and was awarded the Premio Internazionale of Siena’s Accademia Chigiana in 1992. By then he had already begun recording for Deutsche Grammophon and amassed a discography of over 20 CDs during the next dozen years, including a popular version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons that became somewhat notorious due to its promotion on the Weather Channel and Shaham being dubbed that service’s Official Violinist. It sold over 80,000 copies.
Today, Shaham records on his own label, Canary Classics, which began because he wanted to record some Fauré chamber works and DG didn’t. So he decided to do it himself. “I felt young enough to take a risk but had been around long enough to have become established. When we released it on Canary it made several best-seller charts.” A forthcoming release will feature Shaham and his younger sister, Orli, as pianist in a recital of Jewish music including a new work, Nigunim, by Avner Dorman.
His 2011–12 season opened in October with a number of Brahms Concerto performances. But he also gets to play Barber, Stravinsky, Berg, and Prokofiev, as well as Hartmann, which he will perform with the New York Philharmonic in March. Recitals are sandwiched in (mostly in Europe) and include a few Bach Solo Sonata programs. One day he plans to play all six together. At 40, Gil Shaham sums up his career simply: “If people want to hear me, I’m happy.” •
Dennis D. Rooney regularly contributes reviews and features to The Strad and MusicalAmerica.com. He is also an audio producer, narrator, and broadcaster who lives in New York.