Gil Shaham: Mining the Ether
Violinist Gil Shaham may well be the last musician to own a great instrument. His Stradivarius is precious and cherished.
Gil Shaham is an esteemed violinist who won the 2008 Avery Fisher Prize for outstanding achievement in classical music and has been nominated for eleven Grammy Awards, winning one.
He was born in 1971 in Urbana, IL; his parents were Israeli scientists on fellowships at the University of Illinois. The family returned to Jerusalem when he was 2 and Shaham began playing violin at age 4. By age 10 he had played with the Jerusalem Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic. In 1989, while still a high school senior, he flew to England as an emergency replacement for revered violinist Itzhak Perlman for a series of concerts with the London Symphony Orchestra. He has since played with many of the world’s major orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, Berlin Philharmonic, and the Russian National Orchestra.
Shaham has recorded over three dozen albums. He won the Grammy Award for Best Chamber Music Performance in 1999 for American Scene. He teaches at Bard College Conservatory of Music in New York.
Music is Gil Shaham’s most dependable companion and it always has been.
Gil Shaham: It’s like a friend, you know, it’s like a person. You have a relationship with this piece of music. You know, even if it’s a song you used to hear as a kid, somewhere in the back of your mind, you know, you have 40 years of a relationship with that song and that’s a very special thing.
Growing up in Israel, Shaham showed a remarkable affinity for the violin from a young age. He first fell in love with the instrument at the age of four, after hearing recordings of the great American Israeli violinist Itzhak Perlman. By the time Shaham was 10, he’d been dubbed a prodigy and was performing as a soloist with the Jerusalem Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic. Shaham’s parents were music-loving scientists, and they fostered that love in their three children.
Shaham: There is something about the musical bug that once you get it, it seems to be contagious.
AJC: I don’t think it’s a bug. You see, here’s the thing. Musicians always ask people when they meet, do you play? And it’s almost code for, are you one of us? Are you able to mind the ether?
Shaham: We’re so rude. It’s so clubby.
AJC: It’s not rude, no, it’s not club, because I think that people who meet other musicians, there’s an unspoken understanding.
Shaham: Yeah, there is something about that, of trying to do, there’s some, you know, there’s some bonding about trying to, you know, wrestle with your violin and make a sound or wrestle with some, you know, even trying to sing, you know, trying to achieve something like that. Yeah, I think it’s true. You know, when you say, oh, I love the Bartok second violin concerto, then yeah, we do share that, you know, I think it’s like sports fans talking about, you know, that game and that Super Bowl, you know, it is something you can bond to. It is something you can connect to.
Born in Illinois, the Shaham family moved to Israel when Gil was just a baby. They returned to the US when he won a scholarship to the Julliard School. There he studied with some of the finest violin teachers including Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang. In his teens, he turned down places at Harvard, Princeton, and Yale to stick with the violin. It paid off almost immediately. In 1989, Gil Shaham was called to stand in for one of the world’s greatest violinists, and one of his personal heroes. Itzhak Perlman was unwell and unable to give a series of concerts in London. Within 48 hours, the 18 year old Gil was on Concord to England to perform with the London Symphony Orchestra with Michael Tilson Thomas on the podium. Even at that young age, Shaham’s vision for what a performance could be was already beginning to take shape.
Shaham: I think of it as a sculpture, you know, and you can look at it from an infinite number of angles and from every angle, you know, with these great masterpieces, you can learn from every angle and you can become enriched from every, you know, every avenue you decide to study it.
1989 also brought Gil Shaham’s first encounter with a very rare and valuable violin. The Stradivarius Society of Chicago had lent him the Comtesse de Polignac, an exceptional instrument made in 1699 by the Italian master craftsman Antonio Stradivari. Its sound was unmatched. The music seemed to vibrate throughout his entire body. Shaham wanted to play the Comtesse forever, but owning it seemed impossible. Investors in rare instruments were driving prices sky high. The finest examples, and this must be considered one, now sell for upwards of $15 million. The Messiah Stradivarius, currently in the collection of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, England is said to be insured for 200 million. But the young Gil Shaham was undaunted, and ultimately figured out a way to become the Comtesse’s sole owner.
Shaham: There were some occasions when I was laughed out of the office, you know, no college degree, musician, and, you know, and you want how much? But it’s equivalent to buying a house, you know, to buying a nice house. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I remembered there was a gentleman in Zurich. I had played with the Tonhalle Orchestra in Zurich a couple of years earlier, and I met one of the supporters of the orchestra there, Hans Baer, who ran the bank Julius Baer in Switzerland, and Hans Baer was very kind to me and he was very friendly. And after the evening we spent together listening to a symphony in the Tonhalle in Zurich, he gave me his business card and he said, if you ever need help, please feel free to call. And so here I was maybe two years later, two and a half years later, and I’m thinking, well, you know, I’m getting a little stuck here and I called him up and I said, I don’t know if you remember me. And he said, I do. I remember you. And he ended up agreeing to give me a loan and to take the violin as collateral and I was very lucky that there were several people along the way who helped me get this violin. And 25 years later, I’m happy to say that I own it.
AJC: And it’s now a third limb.
Shaham: And it’s a, yeah, it’s a bit of a third limb, you know–
AJC: It’s part of you, yeah.
Shaham: I mean, musicians are neurotic about their instruments, as you know, we sort of, when we cross the street, we hold the violin case in the other hand so like a baby, you know, like if a car hits, it’ll hit me first, you know.
Shaham and his Stradivarius have traveled the world together, offering fresh takes on new and old music alike. Take, for instance, their 2015 recording of the Bach sonatas and partitas, played at a tempo that would have raised eyebrows a generation before.
Shaham: I just started thinking, you know, how would it sound if I played the minuets in the violin partitas? And, you know, I used to play it. I feel like, you know, maybe it swings better. Maybe that, for me, that’s the bottom line.
AJC: I’ve heard you used that phrase before. You rarely hear classical musicians say something swings.
Shaham: Well, I think it’s all about swinging eventually, you know?
AJC: Do you play anything else besides classical music?
Shaham: Very badly.
Shaham: I mean, I’ve, you know, I’ve tried, but I think for us, our problem, my problem in my education, and in the way I approach music is that it’s maybe specialized to the point of a little bit having blinders on, you know? That, I think—when Bach composed, and I always thought that the perfection of the music was amazing, of course it is, mind boggling, right, to think, how can you write music so perfectly? Nowadays, I think his genius was much greater than that, because I think he just improvised all this stuff. I think he would, I mean, we know that he composed away from the piano or from the keyboard or from the violin, but I think he was able to just sit down and improvise, you know, all those tremendous fugues. I think he could do it, you know, in real time. The way that jazz musicians today are able to improvise, the way a storyteller, when he comes out in front of an audience, makes up the story on the spot, you know? And so, yeah, I feel, although our field is performance, and we’re supposed to interpret the works of composers and bring that to life for our audience, the process shouldn’t be so different from the composer himself speaking to the audience or improvising for the audience.
And Gil Shaham speaks, often softly, always with passion, in words, but mostly through other ancient voices. And when he speaks, he conveys a sense of joy, of wonder, and of consummate serenity. In 2020, he was offered a further fresh voice when he was entrusted with a second great violin, the long-term loan of a 1719 Stradivarius from an anonymous benefactor through the Rare Violins in Consortium, an organization that pairs investors in great instruments with highly accomplished musicians. In the spring of 2021, Gil Shaham took this new instrument on the road playing a series of concerts with orchestras in Britain and Germany with the Boston Symphony and with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Now in the extraordinary position of having access to two Stradivari, the musical choices now afforded to Gil Shaham look to be limitless. Yet as always, he will approach each new performance with extraordinary virtuosity, with humility, and with gratitude.
Shaham: I know that I’m going onstage with the best material possible. I do my best to learn from it and to enjoy it and I just feel very lucky with my job.