An interview with celebrated violinist Gil Shaham, who will perform Mozart's gem, the Fifth Violin Concerto, with Seattle Symphony on Oct. 25 and Oct. 27, 2012.
Somehow when Gil Shaham talks about Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, a couple of hundred years seem to vanish. Suddenly Mozart, the prodigious, 18th-century composer, could be just a continent away, a young man just beginning to build an incomparable legacy.
“Mozart has a way of making a violin sing,” says Shaham, one of the most celebrated violinists in the world, hailed by The Washington Post for his “go-for-broke passion … silvery tone, spot-on intonation and meticulously molded phrasing.” The 41-year-old virtuoso appears at Benaroya Hall with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ludovic Morlot on Thursday and Saturday.
Shaham says the piece he is scheduled to play, Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219, “is one of the greatest glories violinists have. Great music should make an audience feel as if it’s going on a journey, and Mozart was an incredible dramatist.”
One of five violin concertos Mozart wrote around the age of 20, No. 5 — sometimes referred to as the “Turkish” for a tempo change in the third movement — is “the largest and most experimental” of these early string works, Shaham says.
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“Nothing like it had ever been written before, even in terms of length. It’s on a whole different scale with all sorts of amazing effects. Mozart was apparently a very good violinist — we have letters from his father saying he could be one of Europe’s greatest — and we think he wrote the five concertos for himself. But in his early 20s he turned away from the violin. The old story is that he nearly scrapped the concerto project. We’re lucky he didn’t.”
There is somewhat more recent music on Shaham’s mind these days: “Violin Concertos of the 1930s.” An ambitious concert-and-recording project he expects to take up about a decade of his career, the concertos project grew out of Shaham’s fascination with a burst of composition writing during a tumultuous decade that saw the Great Depression, the rise of Nazi Germany and the coming of World War II.
“It’s an excuse for me to play some of my favorite music,” Shaham says. “There was a confluence of great concertos by great composers over eight years between 1931 and 1939, from Barber, Britten, Prokofiev, Schoenberg, Bartok, Stravinsky … It’s a curious coincidence.
“People at that time lived with no hope and trepidation, on the edge of a volcano. Yet there were iconic achievements such as building the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building. How did that relate to music that is so emblematic of the era?”
Born in Urbana, Ill., Shaham is the son of Israeli scientists who moved their family to Jerusalem when Gil was 2. Shaham studied violin, and at the age of 9 played for Isaac Stern. Soon after, he debuted as a soloist with the Jerusalem Symphony and the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta.
Shaham studied with Itzhak Perlman’s violin teacher, Dorothy DeLay, and attended the Horace Mann School in Riverdale, NY. It was during his senior year that Shaham was famously tapped to replace an ailing Perlman at two London concerts.
“I was sitting in class, and they said come down to the principal’s office,” he says. “There was a phone call about the concerts. Suddenly I had the option of going back to class or sipping Champagne on a Concorde to London. Before that, I had maybe 10 concerts coming up for the following year. After that I had invitations for 60 or 70. I was very, very lucky.”
Tom Keogh: firstname.lastname@example.org