A few words with Gil Shaham

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Violinist Gil Shaham is certainly one of the world’s greatest and most talented classical performers. Born in Urbana, Illinois (USA) from Israeli parents, he was raised in Jerusalem when the family went back to Israel. He started studying violin at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem and debuted at the age of 10 as a true enfant prodige. He then returned to the United States to continue his studies, up to the point when he received scholarship from the Juilliard School of Music in New York City. His career really started to sizzle in 1989, at the age of 18, when he was called in at the last minute to substitute an ailing Itzhak Perlman for a concert with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, performing violin concertos by Max Bruch and Jean Sibelius. From that point on, Gil’s career launched into the classical music stardom and he became a major live performer and recording artist for the violin repertoire. He received many accolades and awards for his achievements, including a Grammy Award in 1999 and the coveted Avery Fisher Prize in 2008. He was also named “Instrumentalist of the Year” in 2012 by the magazine Musical America.

Called by the New York Times “one of the world’s preeminent violinists”, his masterful technique and warmth of tone drew comparisons to Jascha Heifetz, the inimitable Russian violinist who became a true superstar in the United States during the 1920s and ’30s. Shaham is brilliant in many different repertoires, from the classical works by the Romantics (Mendelssohn, Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky) to the dazzling and audacious concertos by masters of the 20th century (Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Bartók). It’s especially this last group that nurtured in him the idea of recording and performing live the impressive list of the violin concerti written in the 1930s by many great masters, including Alban Berg, Arnold Schoenberg, Samuel Barber, William Walton, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Roger Sessions, Karol Szymanowsky and all the aforementioned composers. The series is still ongoing and the first two volumes were released in 2014 and 2016 on Shaham’s own record label, Canary Classics:

Shaham is also attentive and curious about new works coming from contemporary composers. Among them, he surely found a great source of inspiration in the music of John Williams, with whom he shares a personal friendship and artistic collaboration that lasts since more than 20 years. Shaham started performing with Williams in concerts during the 1990s and the two became close friends. When the violinist expressed interest in having a new piece written for him (while also wanting to revisit the Violin Concerto that Williams wrote in the mid-1970s), the composer set out to write a new violin piece for Shaham called TreeSong and they debuted it together in July 2000 at the Tanglewood Music Festival, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Williams. Following the concert, Williams and Shaham recorded TreeSong and a newly-revised version of the Violin Concerto, together with the Three Pieces from Schindler’s List, in Boston’s Symphony Hall for an album released by major classical label Deutsche Grammophon in 2001.

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The album featuring Williams’ violin pieces performed by Gil Shaham and conducted by the composer, released in 2001 on the Deutsche Grammophon label

The recording became a benchmark for the collaboration between the two artists, but also for the general perception of John Williams as composer of music for the concert hall. In this sense, Gil Shaham played a pivotal role in bringing out Williams’ concert music to a broader audience, thanks to his genuine enthusiasm for these pieces and also for the composer himself. Shaham and Williams continued to perform in several concerts through the years across the United States, including a very memorable performance in Chicago in 2013 where they presented the Violin Concerto together with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Shaham came back to Boston’s Symphony Hall in 2016 to perform Williams’ Violin Concerto with the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stéphane Denève (another Williams’ enthusiast).

violinist gil shaham with boston pops laureate conductor john williams and conductor stéphane denève (hilary scott)
Violinist Gil Shaham with John Williams and conductor Stéphane Denève (Photo by Hilary Scott)

Besides the brilliance of his art and the mastery of his playing, Gil Shaham is a unique artist for his inner human qualities. He’s one of the very few artists who are able to develop a very intimate relationship with the audience when performing–he’s able to morph himself into a vessel that brings the notes from the score paper to the listener’s ears and soul with flowing grace. Shaham is also a lovely human being, genuinely enthusiastic to talk about music he loves to perform. In January 2019, he came to Rome to perform Alban Berg’s rapturous Concerto for Violin and Orchestra (a.k.a. “To the memory of an angel”), a work that became one of the staples of his repertoire and that he continues to love playing around the world. Shaham accepted to talk with me right after the concert and I couldn’t resist to ask him a couple of questions about his relationship with John Williams. Here’s an excerpt of our conversation:

You have developed an artistic relationship with composer John Williams over the years. He’s famous for his film music, but you performed many times his music for the concert hall, like the beautiful Violin Concerto. Can you tell me about your relationship with John and how his music speaks to you?

I feel so lucky to know John and have worked with him many times. I knew him for his music first, you know, and I still find his music so inspiring and so beautifully written. He’s really one of the great masters of music. But I have to say that I feel he’s inspiring as a person too. You know, he works every day—he writes 2 to 3 minutes of music every day! He’s an incredibly hard-working man, and also the gentlest, kindest gentleman you can imagine. I find him very, very inspiring. And I think this is true for all the musicians who work with him. When we go and play a concert of his music, we’re all inspired and we try to do our best. I went once to his annual performance in Los Angeles, at the Hollywood Bowl. Of course tens of thousands of people turned up to listen to two hours of amazing symphonic music, some very well-known scores, some maybe less. There was also something with the choir, it was his piece for the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. I think this was the most amazing concert I heard my entire life.

Really? Wow.

Really, yes. The quality of the music, the quality of the performance, the enthusiasm of the musicians, the enthusiasm of the audience—it was an amazing event. I’ve never seen anything like it before or since. So, I’m with you. I’m John’s biggest fan.

You celebrated your connection with Hebrew-inspired music with an album you recorded with your sister pianist Orli, where among the pieces you recorded music from Schindler’s List.

Oh, what a masterpiece that is. Such a heartbreaking score. I love it.

Williams’ Violin Concerto is very moving too. I think it has some connections with those concertos of the 1930s, especially Berg’s. Like that one, the concerto was written after a very deep personal experience.

Yes, it was after his wife passed away. He doesn’t talk about it much, but that’s correct. And he himself told me that he was very inspired, and loves very much, the Second Violin Concerto by Prokofiev, which is also from the 1930s.

 

You are one of the few artists who really develops a personal relationship with the audience when you’re playing. It seems you’re able to find the right channel and tune with everyone in the audience. How important is to you to reach the soul of every listener? And how much hard work is necessary to accomplish that?

I feel that music, at his best, brings people together. Sometimes, it can become a very intimate experience for both the people on stage and the audience. When you have people breathing together, when you hear the music going together and feeling the score together, with the dissonances and the consonances, the resolutions, the conflicts and the rhythm together—there’s something magic about it because you’re sharing it with other people. I love the experience of concerts. I try to be in the moment as much as I can. And I think that’s maybe the most difficult thing, being objective, being in the moment and understand the room and the people in it.

Thank you dearly for your words, Gil.

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Gil Shaham is an inspiring artist and he continues to share his own incredible talent, as well as his enthusiasm, with listeners and music lovers around the world. I think it’s very fitting that such a genuine human being found one of his inspiration in another gentle soul like John Williams. To cap off this feature, let’s listen to a small but very exciting collaboration between the two: the “Devil’s Dance” from The Witches of Eastwick, specially arranged by the composer himself for violin and piano and dedicated to Shaham.

Gil Shaham’s official website: http://gilshaham.com/

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