Even after four decades of fiddling around, violinist Gil Shaham says what he does for a living is, well, a bit weird.
“Playing on the violin is such a strange, unnatural thing,” says the 48-year-old Israeli American musician. “The deeper you get into it, it’s a strange way of looking at the world.”
Strange or not, Shaham has become one of the most acclaimed classical musicians on the planet. He has performed with just about every leading orchestra in Europe and North America, and won multiple Grammys as well as the Avery Fisher Prize (essentially, the Oscar for classical musicians).
Luckily for Bay Area fans, Shaham and pianist Akira Eguchi will appear together Saturday, April 27 at Palo Alto’s Oshman Family JCC in a program of chamber pieces by J.S. Bach, César Franck, Fritz Kreisler and contemporary composer Scott Wheeler. He performs the same program on April 26 at Sonoma State and April 29 at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall.
Shaham, who plays the full breadth of the classical repertoire, says the program he will perform with Eguchi is the “favorite recital I’ve ever done. Over the years, I learned that’s the most important thing. Every piece has to be [one] that both of us love. Hopefully, that translates to the audience.”
Unlike, pianists, who can perform solo, violinists almost always perform collaboratively, which is why he loves playing chamber concerts.
“I know this sounds very cliché,” he told J., “but when you share music with people, it is a very intimate bonding experience. Even in a room with an audience, for 30 minutes, everyone is breathing together at the same time.”
Though he typically performs baroque, classical and romantic staples, Shaham is also at home in the realm of Jewish music. In 2013, he and his sister, pianist Orli Shaham, recorded “Nigunim,” an album of Jewish melodies that included pieces by Ernest Bloch and Israeli composer Avner Dorman (along with the theme from “Schindler’s List” for good measure).
Born in Urbana, Illinois (where his scientist parents were doing postdoc work), Shaham grew up in Jerusalem, hearing everything from Bach and Beethoven to the Mizrachi and Arab strains that floated in the ether. Showing early aptitude, he studied violin at Jerusalem’s Rubin Academy of Music, debuting with the Jerusalem Symphony when he was only 10 and first performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra a year later.
Shaham moved to Manhattan to attend the Juilliard School, and by the late 1980s, he was a budding superstar. Over the years, he has performed with the New York Philharmonic, Berliner Philharmoniker, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and many other venues. Earlier this year, he performed with the San Francisco Symphony and will return in June. He now lives in New York with his wife Adele Antony (also a violinist) and their three children.
Even in a room with an audience, for 30 minutes, everyone is breathing together at the same time.
At this stage of his career, Shaham has worked out his approach to unpacking a masterwork, even those he has performed many times. More than stamping his own personality onto a piece of music, he tries to recreate what the composer intended.
“Our job is very similar to the job of actors,” he says. “On one hand, we have to serve the author, convey what the composer wrote down on the page and bring it to life for our audience. On the other hand, our job is to serve our audience. You try to get into character, feeling and understanding as much as you can why the composer wrote those specific notes.”
Luckily, he gets to play those notes on his Stradivarius, handcrafted in 1699.
Though some naysayers have worried that classical music is on a steady decline in popularity, Shaham strongly feels otherwise.
“I’m so thrilled that this art is still so popular,” says Shaham, who often teaches master classes to young musicians. “There’s no reason to think young people would be into this music, but they are. The [conservatories] are full. It’s very heartening to see.”
With no more mountains to climb as a violinist, might Shaham try his hand at composing for the concert stage or even for movies? He won’t rule it out.
“I feel I’d love to try all of that,” he says, “but there’s never any time.”