A prodigy on the violin, Gil Shaham became something of legend at the age of 17 when he stepped in at the last minute for Itzhak Perlman at a London Symphony Orchestra date. Right out of high school, Shaham then signed an exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, which resulted in a score of classical albums being released over the next ten years. Despite a minor controversy over the unconventional promotion of one of his releases on the Weather Channel, Shaham also retained the critical respect of his peers, earning a Grammy Award in 1998 and playing well over one hundred concert dates each year to sold-out audiences.
Shaham was born around 1971 in the Midwestern university town of Champaign, Illinois. His father, an astrophysicist, and mother, a geneticist, moved the family back to Jerusalem in their homeland of Israel when Shaham was two years old. Eventually, the family included not only Shaham’s older brother, Shai, but a younger sister, Orli. The three children inherited their parents’ love for music but were not necessarily encouraged to take it up as more than a pastime. “Mom and Dad wouldn’t let Gil play the violin, because Mom was afraid of the screeching that might ensue,” Orli Shaham recalled in an interview with Barbara L. Sand of the American Record Guide. After much pleading, however, Shaham was permitted to take violin lessons beginning at the age of seven at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. Through lessons lasting several hours with his instructor, an elderly violin master from Lithuania, Shaham quickly became a dedicated student. “I put in the bulk of my practicing during those awkward adolescent years, when I practiced seven or eight hours a day,” Shaham remembered in a 1996 Strad interview with Pierre Ruhe. “Playing violin was a sport: I wanted to learn as much music as I could, and to play as well as I could, just to be the best. I loved the whole challenge of it.” Shaham’s hard work paid off, and he received a scholarship to study music from the American Israel Cultural Foundation, the first of many such awards the young musician would earn.
When he was ten years old, Shaham made his debut with the Jerusalem Symphony, following the event with an appearance at the Israel Philharmonic. In 1982 Shaham won first prize in the Claremont Competition in Israel, but the experience left him disillusioned. “I think it’s probably the worst thing any musician can go through,” he later told Ruhe. “In a competition, they’re out to get you. That’s not what music is about.” The 1982 Claremont Competition was the only such event Shaham ever entered. That same year, his family relocated to New York City, and Shaham soon entered high school. He also began to study at the Juilliard School of Music with Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang and played a limited number of concert dates, including his debut with the New York Philharmonic in 1983.
Although Shaham’s virtuosity on the violin set him apart from his high school classmates, he remained for the most part a typical teenager. In April of 1989, however, when he was in English class studying Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shaham was abruptly pulled from class and offered the chance of a lifetime: to fill in for ailing violin superstar Itzhak Perlman for an appearance with the London Symphony Orchestra. “I got on the plane and flew to London, checked into the hotel and started practicing the Bruch G Minor and Sibelius concertos,” he recalled to Ruhe. “It was nerve-wracking. I realized there were people out there expecting to hear Itzhak Perlman. But everyone was so supportive, that playing the concerts was the easy part.” The performance was acclaimed by critics, and the classical music world heralded a new sensation. Shaham followed the performance by winning an Avery Fisher Career Grant, and he later signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, one of the leading classical music labels.
Shaham’s first half-dozen albums for Deutsche Gramophone stayed well within the confines familiar to most classical music audiences, including violin concertos by Mendelssohn, Saint-Saëns, Paganini, and Tchaikovsky. His 1995 recording, Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, however, raised eyebrows in the classical music world—not for its content, which covered one of the best-known pieces in the cannon, but for the unusual means by which Shaham promoted it. In addition to appearances on The Today Show and New York’s Live at Five, Shaham also promoted the album through a commercial tie-in with the Weather Channel that
Born c. 1971 in Champaign, IL; son of Jacob (an astrophysics professor; died 1995) and Meira (a geneticist) Shaham. Education: Studied at Juilliard School of Music.
Substituted for Itzhak Perlman for performance with London Symphony Orchestra, 1989; signed exclusive recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon, c. 1990; released over one dozen albums on the label, 1990s.
Awards: Avery Fisher Career Grant, 1990; Grammy Award, Best Chamber Music Recording, 1998.
Addresses: Record company —Deutsche Grammophon (Germany), Alte Rabenstraße 2, 20148 Hamburg, Germany, website: http://www.grammophon.de; Universal Classics Group (United States), 19th Floor, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019-7416, website: http://www.universalclassics.com.
included playing Vivaldi pieces in conjunction with weather broadcasts. Although criticized by some, Shaham defended the tactic. “I think the problem with classical music is that it has lost a little of the fun, the adventure, the excitement,” he told Billboard. “People treat Mozart as if the music were fragile, delicate, chaste. That’s not what it’s about—or what I’m about.” In a People profile, Shaham reiterated his stance: “We did nothing to compromise our art. Nobody feels more strongly about music than I do, but we have to reach people.” He also joked, “I’m the official Weather Channel violinist. Doesn’t every channel need one?” In terms of sales, Shaham’s strategy worked, and Vivaldi: The Four Seasons sold an estimated 80,000 units after its initial release, a very high figure for an album by a young classical artist.
While Shaham took a chance at being perceived as a renegade within the conservative classical music community, his sheer talent kept the controversy to a minimum. In 1998 his release of American Scenes won stellar reviews for its pieces by Gershwin, Copland, and Barber along with a sonata written by Andre Pre-vin, who accompanied Shaham on the piano for the piece. In a review for Strad magazine, Ken Smith wrote, “Under Shaham’s bow, the lyrical portions do truly sing and he and Previn balance the piece’s firm structure with a flexibility of rhythm that brings out the best in Shaham’s playing.” The album went on to win a Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Recording and demonstrated that Shaham’s reputation remained solid among classic music critics. Shaham still insisted on pushing the musical envelope, however, telling Ruhe that “I do feel that people have become too careful because of their recordings, and there’s a real danger that performances start losing their spontaneity. When I go in front of the microphones, one of the hardest things to learn is to relax and not worry about technical imperfections.”
In the 1990s Shaham released over a dozen albums on Deutsche Grammophon, an impressive achievement given that he simultaneously performed up to 140 concerts a year. He also began performing a number of concerts with his sister, Orli Shaham, who had begun her own impressive career as a pianist. “It’s good musically for both of us, we get to test out ideas—but we want to continue our individual careers,” he told Sand in American Record Guide. “We want to do just one project at a time, but we are passing around ideas for the future. Nothing definite yet—maybe Orli will play the violin and I will play the piano,” he joked.
In concert, Shaham cuts an impressive figure with his violin, made by Stradivarius in 1699. Although not conventionally handsome, one reviewer compared the violinist to Errol Flynn during the golden age of Hollywood; Shaham’s appearance was “as defiantly heroic and sensitive as a leading man can be,” according to Paul Cutts in a November 1997 Strad review. “He delivers his lines to perfection, and his full-bodied depth, warmth of tone, spotless intonation and sincerity in the third movement has the audience trembling in its seats.” Jeremy Vincent in the Australian reached for a Shakespearean comparison, likening Shaham to the Bard’s Puck in a Melbourne appearance. “It was certainly a speedy reading, darting about with beguiling energy and full of the impish delight that the Shakespearean character possesses. Shaham wins over the audience with a deep passion for his instrument. There is ample gypsy in his demeanor on the concert platform and he injects his music with a superb range of light and shade.”
Married to violinist Adele Anthony—a fellow student at Juilliard—Shaham has continued to play well over one hundred concerts a year. In 2001 he released two more albums on Deutsche Grammophon, Messaien: Quartet for the End of Time and TreeSong, and he worked with movie composer John Williams.
Mendelssohn/Bruch: Violin Concertos, Deutsche Grammophon, 1990.
Franck/Saint-Saëns: Violin Sonatas/Ravel: Tzigane, Deutsche Grammophon, 1991.
Paganini: Violin Concerto No. 1/Saint-Saëns: Violin Concerto No. 3, Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.
Wieniawski: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Deutsche Grammophon, 1992.
Sibelius/Tchaikovsky: Violin Concertos, Deutsche Grammophon, 1993.
Barber/Korngold: Violin Concertos, Deutsche Grammophon, 1994.
Paganini for Two, Deutsche Grammophon, 1994.
Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Deutsche Grammophon, 1995.
Prokofiev: Violin Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Deutsche Grammophon, 1996.
Romances, Deutsche Grammophon, 1996.
Dvorak for Two: Works for Violin & Piano, Deutsche Grammophon, 1997.
The Fiddler of the Opera, Deutsche Grammophon, 1997.
American Scenes, Deutsche Grammophon, 1998.
Glazunov/Kabelevsky: Violin Concertos, Deutsche Grammophon, 1998.
Bartok: Violin Concerto No. 2/Rhapsodies Nos. 1 & 2, Deutsche Grammophon, 1999.
Part: Fratres/Tabula Rasa/Symphony No. 3, Deutsche Grammophon, 1999.
Devil’s Dance, Deutsche Grammophon, 2000.
Messaien: Quartet for the End of Time, Deutsche Grammophon, 2001.
TreeSong, Deutsche Grammophon, 2001.
American Record Guide, May/June 1997, p. 13.
Australian, July 6, 2001, p. 11; July 16, 2001, p. 15.
Billboard, June 24, 1995, p. 1.
People, April 24, 1995.
Strad, February 1996; November 1997; December 1998.
Town and Country, April 1997, p. 56.
“Gil Shaham,” iclassics.com, http://www.iclassics.com/iclassics/artists_result.jsp?entityld=915 (December 10, 2001).
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