When you ask Gil Shaham, one of the world’s great violinists, about playing with family members, he has plenty of experience upon which to draw. His wife, Adele Anthony, is a violinist who performs and records internationally. His sister, Orli Shaham, is a world-famous pianist. And his brother-in-law, David Robertson, the conductor, is musical director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra.
But he can’t resist a joke. “The family that plays together, well at least we don’t have to talk to each other!” Shaham says.
April will see the release of the fruits of his latest collaboration with Orli, a CD of Jewish music. For many years Shaham (who turns 41 on Feb. 19) avoided performing with his sister, five years his junior.
“People were always after us to perform [as kids], and my parents thought it was – I don’t know, but they always insisted we take separate paths,” he explains “We weren’t supposed to play music together, so whenever we did there was an extra thrill, because it was forbidden.”
Besides, he adds, his wry humor surfacing again, “We didn’t want to be the Jewish Donny and Marie Osmond.”
Shaham was born in Urbana, Ill., where his scientist parents were completing research fellowships at the University of Illinois. His brother Shai, “the smart one,” Shaham says, was taking piano lessons. (He would end up the only scientist among the three kids.)
“I was jealous. My mother played piano and my dad played violin, so I asked for a violin,” he recalls. “I do remember loving how it looked. I thought it was the most amazing looking contraption; it was amazing to look at these instruments. Of course, now I can philosophize: I could say that I was drawn to the violin because the sound is so close to the human voice.”
Perhaps it is a similar emotional tug that led him to do the new recording with Orli. He recalls one tune in particular that is on the record.
“It does sort of bring me back to my childhood,” he says. “I was thinking of the ‘Hebrew Melody’ of [the Israeli composer] Joseph Achron, and I remember as a child my grandfather used to sing that tune around the house. He was from a small shtetl in Eastern Poland.”
For any Jew born after WWII, the shadow of the Holocaust lingers somewhere in the background, even for a son of Sabras like Shaham. He acknowledges that shadow frequently in his choice of repertoire. In mid-March, he will perform Karl Amadeus Hartmann’s Concerto Funebre, for violin and string orchestra, with members of the New York Philharmonic.
“Hartmann was a Munich-based composer and a vocal anti-Nazi during the Reich,” Shaham explains. “His music was banned. He would smuggle his pieces to Switzerland to be performed. Much of the music is very touching and shocking. There are some amazing letters that he left. He writes about lines of people he could see outside his window being shipped off to Auschwitz. It’s hair-raising to think about it.”
The piece itself contains subtle musical acts of resistance.
“This violin concerto begins with a traditional Czech hymn, played very pianissimo on solo violin, ‘a weeping violin’ over this very ominous, dissonant and sharp-edged orchestral texture,” Shaham says.” There is a letter in which Hartmann writes that the piece is meant to capture the times in which we live. It is his reaction to Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, captured in 25 minutes of powerful, very original music.
Gil Shaham will perform the Concerto Funebre by Karl Amadeus Hartmann at Avery Fisher Hall (Lincoln Center) March 15 -17 and March 20, David Zinman conducting. Gil and Orli Shaham’s “Hebrew Melodies” will be released in April on his Canary Classics label.