Gil Shaham Fiddles With History


The acclaimed violinist returns to the Philadelphia Orchestra to perform Berg's "Violin Concerto."

Like countless others who treat themselves to a little something on their birthdays, the violinist Gil Shaham is getting out of town for a few days. Unlike most others, though, Shaham’s will be a working trip: He will be in Philadelphia the day after his Feb. 19 birthday for a weekend’s worth of performances with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It’s not a long trip for the Illinois-born, Jerusalem-raised, New York-based musician/entrepreneur, but, he says with a laugh, it serves its purpose. The husband of the violinist Adele Anthony and father of three children allows that going on the road has become “kind of a day off. I always feel guilty when I’m on tour. When I’m at home, we’re always chasing after the kids; on tour, I get to go to my practice room, have a leisurely rehearsal and make music that I love.”
Although he is only 44, Shaham has been making music with the Fabulous Philadelphians more than half his life, since he was a teenager splitting his time between classes at New York’s Horace Mann High School and the Juilliard School. 
The Philadelphia Orchestra isn’t alone in having a long-term relationship with Shaham. Following his return to the United States for high school after living in Israel with his family and studying at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem, he appeared with the Berlin Philharmonic, Orchestre de Paris and Cleveland Orchestra. In 1989, he made international headlines when, as an 18-year-old, he won raves as a Concorde-delivered last-minute replacement for the ailing Itzhak Perlman in a performance with the London Symphony Orchestra.
A quarter-century later, the supersonic airliner has been permanently grounded, while Shaham’s career has continued on its upward trajectory. In addition to performing with orchestras around the world half the year, the multiple Grammy-winner runs his own recording label, Canary Classics, which he founded in 2004. He also works on projects such as a touring audio-visual exploration of Bach with the video artist David Michalek and his “Violin Concertos of the 1930s,” which has been going on for six years and counting 
He will be performing one of those concertos, Alban Berg’s 1935 “Violin Concerto,” with the orchestra. The piece is one of the Austrian composer’s — and, indeed, one of the Second Viennese School’s — best known works, a triumph of Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone harmonization that so influenced his pupils like Berg, who made up the school.
“The story of the concerto actually starts here in the States,” Shaham says, with a historian’s enthusiasm, “with the violinist Louis Krasner, who traveled to Vienna and pleaded with Berg to create a concerto. One of his arguments to Berg was, ‘You must write a concerto that will finally dispel the notion that serialist 12-tone music cannot move an audience, that it cannot be soul-stirring.’ ”
Berg denied the request for years until, Shaham relates, he was moved by the death of a friend’s daughter to create the concerto that showcased Schoenberg’s technique of sounding all 12 notes of the chromatic scale in equal proportions, including, Shaham notes, the famously moving passage at the end of the piece when the composer “alternates between a Bach chorale and Berg’s 12-tone setting of the same melody with this kind of sobbing, weeping violin.”
“The story was that he wrote to the parents, ‘Words can’t express my feelings, but soon you’ll be able to hear them in my violin concerto,’ ” Shaham explains. (Berg’s dedication of the concerto reads, “To the memory of an angel.”)
Shaham’s affinity for religiously themed music extends to the music of his own religion as well, as evidenced by his 2013 recording, Nigunim: Hebrew Melodies. The disc, which he made with his sister, the pianist Orli Shaham, features their takes on the wordless melodies, as well as selections from Schindler’s List and an original four-movement, 15-minute composition by Avner Dorman.
“It’s something that goes very deep,” Shaham says about recording the music. “When we were playing some of the Achron” — Joseph Achron, the Russian-born Jewish composer famous for his interpretations of Jewish folk music and his score for the silent film, The Golem — “those are tunes I would remember my grandfather singing in those ‘bim bom bom’ syllables walking around the house” in Jerusalem.
In addition to his grandfather, Shaham has another eight generations of family history, both musical and otherwise, to draw from in Jerusalem, where his mother’s side of the family has resided since the 18th century. “I have one uncle who got particularly involved with this and started tracing the family history,” he says, adding lightheartedly that claims of lineage back to King David’s time have yet to be substantiated.
The latest of Shaham’s — and Canary’s — recordings, JS Bach Sonatas and Partidas, has just been released. When asked why a successful, busy recording and performing artist would want to take on the welter of responsibilities inherent in label ownership, Shaham replied, “When I did it, I felt like I was young enough to take on that risk — and it appealed to the control freak in me!”
He adds that the label — now 14 releases strong — allows him to collaborate with his choice of artists and orchestras.
And about the name “Canary” — Shaham says, “It is a songbird, it is a famous fiddle tune called ‘Hot Canary’ — and in Hebrew, the word ‘kihnoor’ means violin.”
Gil Shaham with the Philadelphia Orchestra
Feb. 20 to 22 at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center
300 S. Broad St., Philadelphia; 215-893-1999
Contact: (215-832-0797).


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