A Conversation With: Violinist Gil Shaham

Classic Arts Features   A Conversation With: Violinist Gil Shaham
Elgar's Violin Concerto and the music of Pablo de Sarasate figure prominently into acclaimed violinist Gil Shaham's fall 2008 season. His recording of the Elgar work with the Chicago Symphony will enjoy an early iTunes digital release on Nov. 4.

Shaham has just finished a weekend playing the Elgar concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, conducted by David Zinman. On November 18, his recording of the work with the Chicago Symphony _ also with Zinman _ will be released in the U.S. on Shaham's own Canary Classics label (iTunes will have an early and exclusive digital release of the recording available November 4).

Two days after the recording's release, Shaham will perform with pianist Jonathan Feldman, violinist Adele Anthony, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the Kaplan Penthouse. "Gil Shaham and Orpheus at the Penthouse" will be broadcast nationally by PBS in its Live From Lincoln Center series on Thursday, November 20, and will showcase the captivating and seductive music of legendary Spanish violinist and composer Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908). Soon after the broadcast, Shaham will play the Sarasate program, which includes dances and opera transcriptions, in Spain. (While in Spain, he will record the material for a future release on Canary.)

In the conversation below, Shaham speaks enthusiastically about his fall projects, and _ among other things _ the seemingly unlikely connection between Elgar's powerfully expressive Violin Concerto and Sarasate's home country.


Q: With the release of your Elgar concerto recording with the Chicago Symphony, performances of the concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic, and the Live From Lincoln Center broadcast in November, you've got some really important fall projects coming up.

Gil Shaham: I'll also be recording the Stravinsky concerto for Canary Classics. I feel very lucky that I'm doing exactly what I always dreamed I'd be doing: playing with the world's greatest orchestras, and recording works I love.

Q: Is there a theme of sorts in what you're focusing on this season?

Shaham: This fall, I'll be focusing on Spain. The whole family is going to Spain to play "Sarasate-adas" _ evenings focusing on the music of Pablo de Sarasate, who died a century ago. And, although Elgar is thought of as the ultimate British composer, his violin concerto has some important Spanish connections. There are rhythms and gestures throughout the piece that sound Spanish, such as the cadenza in the last movement where Elgar writes on the score that the strings should be "thrummed" like a guitar. Plus, the violins do what sound like flamenco improvisations. The Spanish musical heritage is extremely rich _ I'm very excited about this!

Q: There are some other surprising Spanish associations with this piece.

Shaham: The score carries the Spanish inscription "Aqui estš encerra el alma de ....." ("Herein is enshrined the soul of ....."), a quotation from the novel Gil Blas (set in Spain) by the French writer Alain-Ren_ Lesage [1668-1747]. It might refer to Elgar himself or to his wife, who had Spanish blood, but the five dots are now usually thought to represent the first name of Alice Stuart Wortley, the woman Elgar nicknamed "Windflower".

Q: Your relationship with the Elgar Concerto has been a long and extremely interesting one, and this recording is very important for you. How did this all get started?

Shaham: When I started to talk to people about this piece, people who knew it would tell me, "Oh, that's my favorite violin concerto." That would surprise me, because Elgar's Violin Concerto really isn't programmed all that often _ certainly not nearly as often as his Cello Concerto _ and it's not nearly as well-known as some of the other famous concertos, such as those by Beethoven and Brahms. David Zinman convinced me to learn it; after a few weeks, I was hooked. It's been an extraordinary experience for me. It's a huge piece _ one of the most demanding works in the repertoire, canvassing so many powerful emotions. It's almost like the tenor part in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde! It's epic, and an important piece for Elgar himself. Like so many of his works, it is highly autobiographical: about unrequited longing, about fighting against destiny. It starts with six notes, dark and turbulent in B minor, like an unanswered question, and those six notes figure prominently throughout the piece.

Q: When did you first play the piece?

Shaham: I performed it for the first time with David Zinman in Cleveland about ten years ago. But before we did, I went to David's house in Cape May to work on it. We were walking on the beach and talking about it and he said to me that I should play the violin's first entrance as if it's the saddest music ever written. When Fritz Kreisler finished performing it, people said he came off the stage looking pale. That's how I feel when I come off the stage!

Q: You and Zinman are developing quite a history of your own with this piece.

Shaham: In the past we've done it with the Montreal Symphony, the Philharmonia in London, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the St. Louis Symphony, and this month we'll be doing it with the Berlin Philharmonic. I've also performed it with other conductors, and it was a very special time for me when I performed it with David Zinman and the Chicago Symphony during the Elgar anniversary year. It was a great honor to be in Chicago and play it with that extraordinary orchestra. We did three performances there and took the work on tour where we performed it in six concerts across Florida. We had done radio broadcasts from Chicago, and on tour in Florida we talked about them and ultimately decided to release a recording of those broadcasts.

Q: So how did you convince the Chicago Symphony to let you release the album on your own label, Canary Classics?

Shaham: During the tour, I spoke with the musicians in the orchestra committee. Matthew Freeman, who oversees productions of the Canary recordings, spoke with the orchestra and somehow managed to work out the details. I know and revere the players in this amazing orchestra, and I'm really thrilled that this has happened. I had recorded with them for DG in the past. I've known some of these players from the CSO for more than 20 years!

Q: Your record label is a bit of a "friends and family" affair.

Shaham: I think of it as a small family business. I feel lucky and proud. Our first release featured Faur_'s Sonatas for violin and piano. My previous record company didn't think they could succeed with this project, but we were able to get it on the Billboard bestsellers chart. Now we're working with people like Truls Mork and "Fima" Bronfman. Andrew Neill, the President of the Elgar Society, wrote the program notes for the new Elgar CD, and we've had wonderful annotators for our other releases as well.

Q: So making recordings is something you obviously love doing?

Shaham: I've been making recordings for a long time. I've made 30 records, but I've played several hundred concerts, so maybe the latter feels a bit more comfortable for me. But I do like making recordings, and listening to them as well, so I'm glad to be doing it.

Q: Classical artists don't get as much airtime on TV these days, but in November you're having a big broadcast media moment with a Live From Lincoln Center telecast on November 20. People know Sarasate primarily as a great violinist who arranged a couple of popular pieces, especially the Carmen Fantasy. But your Lincoln Center program is showing people a lot more of him. How did this project come about?

Shaham: I couldn't be more excited about this project. This is the 100th year since Sarasate's passing. Long before the show was discussed, Adele [Gil's wife, violinist Adele Anthony] and I were planning to go to Spain to play "Sarasate-adas". I really love Sarasate both as a violinist and as a composer because his compositions are always humble _ short, titled pieces _ but the writing is full of imagination and melody, impeccably clean and concise. I enjoyed learning more about him and I think people will really like what they hear. At home, Adele and I are both practicing Sarasate; I'm jealous that she'll be playing Song of the Nightingale and Scottish Airs.

Q: Tell us more about Sarasate.

Shaham: He was very respected in his day, as a violinist. Many great composers dedicated their works to him _ Saint-SaêŠns, Bruch, Lalo, and many others. He was especially respected for playing German music. In many ways he was a pioneer _ the first to bring the rich music and dance of the Spanish vernaculars to the concert stage. He was from the Basque country, and died in Biarritz in the South of France. He was Spanish aristocracy and was honored by the queen and loved by professional musicians and lay people and amateurs. Even the fictional amateur violinist Sherlock Holmes goes to hear one of his concerts in London in one of the stories! He was very wealthy and successful and he founded the orchestra in Pamplona. Not sure if he ever ran with the bulls, but maybe I'll find out while I'm there!

Q: You'll be doing the broadcast with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, your wife Adele, and also with pianist Jonathan Feldman.

Shaham: That's right. Sarasate basically wrote three genres of music: Spanish dance, opera transcriptions, and original compositions. Our show will be giving a sampling of each of these. In many ways, Sarasate was the heir to Paganini. In fact, Sarasate's Caprice Basque, a set of variations for violin and piano, pays homage to Paganini's Twenty-Fourth Caprice.

Q: And you're recording this music as well?

Shaham: Yes, I'll record it in Spain in November with Akira Eguchi and the Orquesta Sinfê_nica de Castilla y Leê_n.

Q: Did he ever perform in America?

Shaham: Yes, he played in New York with the Philharmonic when he was 28 (the Bruch Violin Concerto), and in dozens of other American cities _ including Boston, St. Louis, San Francisco and Kansas City. He really did play all over the world: He played in Siberia, Jamaica, Martinique, and cities throughout North and South America.

Q: Speaking of the New York Philharmonic, you're also performing with it next month. Anything particularly Spanish about the Khachaturian Concerto?

Shaham: I've played often with the New York Philharmonic and can't wait to return. I'm psyched that we're doing the Khachaturian concerto, which I love. It's as Armenian as you can get! The Armenian musical language is so perfectly suited to the violin, and this piece masterfully conveys that. Khachaturian was so good with a melody that some people are almost suspicious of it. But it's such a great piece _ really unique. The first movement is so driven, there's a soulful slow movement, and lots of dance in the last movement _ you really get your money's worth with this piece!

Interview courtesy of 21C Media Group, Inc.

Gil Shaham's Upcoming Performance Dates

Nov 12, 13,15: Khachaturian Violin Concerto with New York Philharmonic / Boreyko (New York, NY)

Nov 20: Sarasate program with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra at the Kaplan Penthouse, Lincoln Center (New York, NY). Program will be broadcast nationally on PBS-TV's Live From Lincoln Center at 8 pm

Nov 25 _ 30: Brahms Violin Concerto with Orquesta Nacional de Espaê±a (Valladolid and Madrid, Spain)

Dec 1, 2: Sarasate program, with Orquesta Sinfê_nica de Castilla y Leê_n; Adele Anthony; Akira Eguchi (Valladolid, Spain)

Dec 8: Mozart Violin Concerto No. 2 and Stravinsky Violin Concerto with BBC Symphony Orchestra / Robertson (London, UK)

Dec 14: Linton Chamber Music Series anniversary concert (Cincinnati, OH)

Jan 8-10, 2009: Brahms Violin Concerto with Atlanta Symphony Orchestra / Roberto Abbado (Atlanta, GA)

Jan 13: "Shaham and Friends play Brahms": Program 1 of 3 at Zankel Hall (New York, NY)

Jan 22, 24, 25: Khachaturian Violin Concerto with Los Angeles Philharmonic / Denêëve (Los Angeles, CA)

Jan 23: Khachaturian Violin Concerto with Los Angeles Philharmonic / Denêëve (Irvine, CA)

Feb 4: Brahms chamber music at the Mike Lazaridis Theatre of Ideas (Ontario, Canada)

Feb 6: "Shaham and Friends play Brahms": Program 2 of 3 at Zankel Hall (New York, NY)

Feb 9: "Shaham and Friends play Brahms": Program 3 of 3 at Zankel Hall (New York, NY)

Feb 14: Stravinsky Violin Concerto with the Lexington Symphony / Nardolillo (Lexington, KY)

Feb 19-21: Stravinsky Violin Concerto with Cleveland Orchestra / Petrenko (Cleveland, OH)

Feb 26-28: Stravinsky Violin Concerto with National Symphony Orchestra / Xian Zhang (Washington, DC)

March 26-29: Khachaturian Violin Concerto with Philadelphia Orchestra / Krivine (Philadelphia, PA)

April 2-6: U.S. tour with Sejong, the conductorless string orchestra: Haydn Violin Concertos in C major and G major and Mendelssohn Octet

April 23-26: Mozart Violin Concerto No. 5 with Munich Philharmonic / Thielemann (Munich, Germany)

May 12, 13: Brahms Violin Concerto with Montreal Symphony / Nagano (Montreal, Canada)

June 3: Bolcom Violin Concerto with Toronto Symphony / Slatkin (Toronto, Canada)

June 10-13: Berg Violin Concerto with San Francisco Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (San Francisco, CA)


For more information on Shaham's Canary Classics releases, visit Canary Classics.

Click here to check local PBS airdates for Live from Lincoln Center's broadcast of "Gil Shaham and Orpheus at the Penthouse."

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