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Music Preview: Violinist dedicated to his craft

Friday, February 15, 2002

By Andrew Druckenbrod, Post-Gazette Classical Music Critic

One of classical music's stars -- indeed, one of few to still have a recording contract -- Gil Shaham is as modest and pleasant a person as you'll meet anywhere.

He's a violinist's violinist, yet he strives foremost to ensure his performances communicate to the audience. Unselfish in the land of egos, Shaham, 30, is a breath of fresh air.

Pittsburgh Symphony

Where: Heinz Hall, Downtown.

When: 8 tonight and tomorrow.

Tickets: $19-$63. 412-392-4900.


Asked about his practice habits, often a secretive realm for soloists, he laughs, saying, "I probably need to practice more than I do!" Asked about turning 30, the laughter bellows out again. "I used to go to orchestras and I would be younger than most, and now that's not true anymore," he says. "It just made me feel old [to turn 30]. But look at Michael Jordan. At 38, he is fine."

Born in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., Shaham moved to Israel as a child with his family. By age 7, he was already singled out for study with a well-known teacher. His big break came after winning Israel's Claremont Competition in 1982, helping him get a scholarship to Juilliard. Shaham liked New York City so much he stayed. In 1990, he won an Avery Fisher Career Grant.

However, nothing shows Shaham's dedication to his career more than how the violinist reacted to the Sept. 11 attacks. When violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter canceled her appearance with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra late in that month, Shaham flew in to cover for her, interrupting his family time.

When a string broke while he performed Beethoven's Violin Concerto at the first concert of the series, Shaham was slightly shaken, but he finished the piece on a borrowed instrument. That's harder than you think -- he's accustomed to performing on a Stradivarius from 1699 known as the "Countess Polignac."

Furthermore, he has no hesitation about traveling to Israel for an April date with the Israel Philharmonic. "I can see how [someone would] be afraid and that it's dangerous," he says. "When I am in Israel I avoid the buses. But I feel very strongly about going there."

The music community there is actively striving for cessation of the current political strife between Israel and Palestine. "One thing that is nice in the musical community in Israel," he says, "is there are many events when Israel musicians and Palestinian musicians get together for performances."

The piece Shaham will play this weekend with Mariss Jansons at the helm of the PSO is another example of music mitigating tragedy. Alban Berg's Violin Concerto is dedicated "To the Memory of an Angel." The angel was the beautiful and talented Manon Gropius, who died of polio at 18.

"It's an incredible story," says Shaham. "It is a story about a girl who charmed the whole city of Vienna, Berg included, and died this terrible early death."

Though it is a 12-tone work, don't let the red flags go off just yet.

"People think of 12-tone writing as being very mathematical, but this is a very human piece," he says. "The scoring is very delicate, pianissimo. The tone row that he picked gave him alternating minor and major thirds and also minor and major chords. That is kind of the message of the piece, a contrast between her life and her death, giving it a bittersweet flavor.

"I used to be afraid of the concerto. In school, this was the textbook 12-tone piece. Then I started playing it and got to know it. I love the piece now."

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