July 5, 2007
Virtuoso violinist Gil Shaham brings passion and prowess to Hollywood Bowl
Shaham, 36, built his reputation as a violinist of singular warmth, lyricism and technical prowess on warhorses like the Tchaikovsky Concerto. Yet though he's often played this work and others like it -- including concertos by Brahms, Mendelssohn and Bruch -- he insists that he never tires of them. Nor does he seem to tire of the Bowl, where he has been a frequent visitor for the last decade and a half.
"I love the Bowl, the whole atmosphere," Shaham said on the telephone from Aspen, Colo., where he was teaching and performing last month. "There's a different audience that goes to the Bowl than to typical classical concerts, and that's great. There's a more casual feeling about it. Sometimes it gets a little bit schwitzy. There have been a couple of times when it felt like it was 100 degrees on stage. But mostly it's very comfortable, with a nice breeze, and you can look up at the stars."
Though Shaham's musical interests are wide-ranging -- he's equally comfortable performing Mozart and Beethoven or Stravinsky and Prokofiev -- he is at the moment in the thrall of a piece little known to Western audiences, the "Butterfly Lovers" concerto, a throbbing, romantic work of relatively recent vintage by two Chinese students who were later persecuted during the Cultural Revolution. If you don't know it, you're not alone, though Shaham hopes to change that with his recording of it, intended for release in the foreseeable but not immediate future. He also hopes to play it at the Bowl someday. He first encountered the work about 15 years ago, when a friend in Hong Kong played it for him on a record. "He played about five minutes of it," the violinist recalls. "And then he started welling up with tears. And I thought that any music that affects people in this way, I want to learn more about."
The concerto is especially popular in Asia, in part because it evokes a famous legend. The story, a sort of Chinese "Romeo and Juliet," according to Shaham, tells of the doomed love of Zhu Ying-Tai for Liang Shan-Po. He said the work is called "Liang-Zhu" for short.
"I always say I'm a young Jew playing Liang-Zhu," Shaham joked.
Unlike in Shakespeare, though, where the tragedy is permanent, the deceased young lovers in this tale are resurrected as a pair of butterflies.
Shaham, whose mother-in-law is Cantonese, has performed the concerto several times now, including at the Blossom Music Center, summer home of the Cleveland Orchestra.
When the CD is released, it will appear on the Canary Classics label, which Shaham established in 2003 as a bulwark against the fickle fortunes of today's classical recording industry. The name is a pun, invoking both the songbird and canar, the Hebrew word for violinist.
For years a prolific artist on the Deutsche Grammophon label, Shaham is now able to release just what he wants, rather than what marketing mavens insist is right.
"Freedom is invaluable," he said. "And I always had a problem with authority. I tell all my friends, if you can own your own music, it's always better."
That freedom led him to release an album of chamber music by the restrained French master Gabriel Fauré and then albums featuring Shaham in musical partnership with his sister, Orli, a pianist. As for what the future holds, Shaham, though slightly cagey, hints at expansion.
"It's kind of like a family business, like a restaurant or a food stall," he said, "and hopefully people like the food and will come back. Technology has really set us free. You can make the highest quality recording pretty much on your laptop now. When I first started, you had huge walls of equipment. You still need a great engineer and producer, but it's relatively inexpensive now."
The opportunity to work with his sister has certainly been welcomed by the violinist, who said that a concert artist's busy life makes it tough to find time for friends and family. That Orli is not just a performer, but also married to the conductor David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony, only further complicates their schedules. So when opportunities do present themselves, both Shahams seize them.
"We're very comfortable with each other, which also means we're very abrasive, very short, with each other," he said. "I always say: The family that plays together, well, at least we don't have to talk to each other. That's my take on family harmony. But really it's almost the only time we see each other, so it's really, really nice."
In fact, Shaham has the luxury of performing, and thus traveling, far less than many other successful concert artists. Having begun his international career while in his late teens and achieving fame soon afterward, he is now enjoying the fruits of those labors.
"I play only 50 concerts a year," he said, citing a number that's shockingly low for an artist of his stature.
His flexible schedule might also provide more time for him to visit Israel, where he has close relatives, if no immediate family members. Born to Israeli parents in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., in 1971, he moved to Israel at the age of 7, when his parents returned there. He has since resettled in the United States but has dual citizenship and travels to Israel pretty much annually, regularly performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
But the primary reason for the paucity of concert dates is so that he can spend more time with his wife, Adele Anthony, who is also a violinist, and his two children, Elijah, 4, and Ella, 1.