When Gil Shaham's son found out his father would be traveling from New York to Oklahoma for a solo appearance with the Oklahoma City Philharmonic, he asked if he could come along. It wasn't to hear his father perform; he could do that any day. It turns out that 9-year old Elijah is a big Thunder fan and was hoping to meet NBA star Kevin Durant.
Elijah may have to wait until March to see the OKC Thunder play at Madison Square Garden, but classical music fans will be able to hear Shaham perform this week at the Civic Center Music Hall. He'll be the featured soloist in Brahms' “Violin Concerto in D Major.”
For the second concert of the orchestra's 2012-13 season, which is subtitled “Songs of Land and Sea,” music director Joel Levine has also programmed Glinka's “Kamarinskya,” Britten's “Four Sea Interludes” from “Peter Grimes” and Kodaly's “Dances of Galanta.”
Shaham, 41, is one of the leading violinists of his generation. In 2008, he received the prestigious Avery Fisher Prize, a $75,000 award considered one of the most significant awards for American instrumentalists.
“I was very humbled to be chosen for the Avery Fisher Prize,” Shaham said. “It's not like a competition or something you can apply for. I was playing at Lincoln Center and at the end of the concert, my friend Gustavo Dudamel came up and surprised me with the award.”
In 1990, Shaham was the recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant, an award designed to help young artists launch their careers. As the celebrated philanthropist once noted, “Musicians of outstanding ability are such an important part of our culture. But they are like flowers that must bloom at a particular time. They have to be helped at the right moments.”
Shaham says he was smitten with the Brahms “Concerto in D Major” when he first heard it around age 10. But young violinists rarely perform this work early in their careers. Learning the notes is far easier than creating an interpretation that conveys a profound depth of understanding and considerable musical intelligence.
Attention to details
Violinists often speak of an ever-changing relationship with their instrument. For two decades, Shaham has played a Stradivarius known as the “Comtesse de Polignac,” a 1699 violin that is slimmer and slightly longer than other instruments the Italian craftsman made.
“I'm just amazed because I feel like after 20 years, I've just touched the tip of the iceberg,” Shaham said recently. “It's such an incredibly smart instrument, and there's so much in there. I'm just now starting to understand what my violin knew all along.”
Shaham said he's probably played the Brahms violin concerto “a couple of hundred times,” but as with any acknowledged masterpiece, it never ceases to surprise the performer with some tiny detail that emerges unexpectedly.
“I think that's why people love this piece the way they do,” Shaham said. “The craftsmanship is so perfect and so amazing. Every note and every passage were carefully put down to tell a story.
“As this narrative unfolds, people can't help but respond to the emotional impact. Like a great novel, film or play, by the time you get to the end, you feel like you've been on an amazing journey. There's something so satisfying about that.”