A graceful arm sweeps across the violin, as the bow tugs in a romantically hesitant manner upon the strings. Suddenly, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto is flitting around in a nervous rhythm, like a butterfly’s wings. Then, it dramatically climbs in a haunting urgency.
Legendary Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham will perform this dazzling piece at the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Jan. 24-26 with Finnish conductor John Storgards.
Shaham, 48, debuted at the Jerusalem Symphony at just 10 years old. He now has more than two dozen concerto and solo CDs to his name. He has won multiple Grammys, founded the label Canary Classics, attended Juilliard, and performed all over the world.
Shaham started performing when he was 7 years old, after his family moved to Israel from Illinois. He jokes that he was motivated to learn the violin because he was jealous of his piano-playing brother and wanted to be different.
His Jewish roots and musical affinity are closely tied.
“My family are all sabras,” said Shaham, whose mother’s side are native Jerusalemites for ten generations going back to the 1700s.
Later in life, Shaham found himself in Arizona with a musical project related to his identity. Violins of Hope is a collection owned by Amnon Weinstein, a violin maker in Tel Aviv. Weinstein and his father documented the tragic paths of violins and Jewish violinists through the Holocaust. Many of the instruments were used for the death camp orchestra.
“There are many individuals that by playing could survive and did so, and their stories are important to show that no matter what, people tried to keep some kind of humanity in their life,” Amnon Weinstein told Arizona Central.
Shaham performed at Musicfest in Arizona for this project. The concert featured several of these recovered instruments, including the violin Shaham played.
“It was a very moving and thought provoking experience,” he said. “Playing the theme from John Williams’ score for the film ‘Schindler’s List’ was a memorable moment for me.”
Shaham is also proud to have had Jewish collaborations with masters like Jonathan Leshnoff and Avner Dorman. He calls spirituality and musical soulfulness two sides of the same coin.
Shaham decided to play this concerto at BSO because, “As an 11-year-old I used to listen to the opening melody over and over again on a cassette tape of a recording by the great Zino Francescatti. It is as inspiring today as it was back then. When conversations with Maestro Storgards and the BSO turned to the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto, I was thrilled.”
Shaham names Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto as one of his most favorite pieces, calling it a miracle. Like “Starry Night” by Van Gogh or “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, this piece transcends time and borders.
“Great music has a way of taking people on a journey and uplifting their spirits,” he said.
Particularly unique in the art world, he said, is that “People have called music the art of feeling. Mendelssohn himself suggested that music is more accurate in describing our inner lives then language. Even days-old infants respond to music. It is a most human art form that speaks to the preverbal self in all of us.”
Shaham has known the maestro and orchestra for years now and looks forward to their reunion of music-making.
“Hopefully our listeners will enjoy hearing the timeless masterpieces on our program as much as we will enjoy playing them.”