Nerissa Paglinauan, NPR
Orli Shaham in rehearsal with the International Sejong Soloists.
In mid-October 2002, pianist Orli Shaham, then 26, spent a week at NPR appearing on Performance Today for an hour each day to perform with special guests and discuss her career with NPR's Fred Child.
This edition of PT Web Classics features Orli's performance with the International Sejong Soloists in NPR's Studio 4A plus and the Q&A Orli conducted for the Web.
Q & A with Orli Shaham
Q: Your father, Jacob, was a renowned astrophysicist and professor at Columbia University. Your mother, Meira, is a cytogeneticist. Even your eldest brother Shai is a developmental geneticist. How did music infiltrate the Shaham family? Did your parents ever try pulling you and your brother Gil into the science pool, or was it always music for you?
Shaham: We were really lucky with music growing up, because my parents just adored it. In the beginning of their marriage, every Friday night (payday!) they'd go out to buy a record together. By the time I was born the collection was nearing 300, and it continued to grow.
They never pushed us to be musicians (or scientists, for that matter), but their love of music was infectious, and all three of us asked to play instruments. The other side to this question is that both Gil and I have always felt somewhat unable to keep up with dinner-table conversation around the house — little things like quasi-periodic oscillations and programmed cell death — so both of us desperately try to catch up on our scientific knowledge whenever we can!
Q: You were awarded your first music scholarship at age 5. Did you have any idea what was in store for you? Can you remember if, at that point, you knew you wanted to become a professional musician? Were there ever times you felt like you didn't want to do this? What do you think you'd be doing now if you weren't a pianist?
Shaham: I'll try to answer both of these at once. I really wanted to study the piano, and when a teacher spotted me at age 4 sitting in silence during a student recital in which Shai and Gil were performing, she was so surprised that she went up to my parents and offered to teach me. They finally acquiesced (I had been asking for a while) a few months later.
I have to admit I have no idea what I thought I wanted to do with this skill. I had no clue what a performing life might be like, nor did I have any interest in finding out. I just really loved music and wanted to be able to play some. Since then, I have sometimes toyed with other professions, some related to music and others not.
I have taught at Columbia University — a kind of intro to music for non-majors. That was a fantastic experience and I'd love to continue it. But I clearly have high aspirations, because my other serious life's ambition was always to be a Supreme Court Justice!
As a naturalized citizen, I have a great appreciation for the genius and importance of the Constitution.
Q: You were born in Israel and came to the U.S. in the early 1980s when your father accepted the professorship at Columbia. What was that like for you? Did you experience a huge culture shock? Did you find differences in how music was valued and taught?
Shaham: Coming to the States was an unbelievable culture shock for me. Jerusalem is a small town with a close-knit community. Needless to say, New York is a bit different.
At first it was the language that was most difficult for me. I'll never forget how my brothers teased me when I couldn't pronounce the 'r' at the end of the word alligator. My revenge was that I now have less of an accent than either of them!
In terms of music, I found it strange that not everybody played an instrument here. In Israel it was (in those days) expected that every child would learn an instrument, and keep it up for most of their childhood.
Q: Instead of taking the traditional conservatory route, you opted for a joint program with Columbia and Juilliard. Why? What was your major at Columbia?
Shaham: I attended Juilliard's Pre-College Division for ten years. By the time I was ready for college, there were few courses left for me to take there. Besides, I had always been an interested student, and I wasn't about to pass up the chance to study things other than music in a structured and stimulating way.
The joint program meant I could get credit for piano and chamber music lessons but otherwise be a normal Columbia student. I was a European History major (mostly 19th and 20th centuries), but I especially loved taking courses in random subjects such as primate behavior, human skeletal biology, art history and physics.
Q: What pianist and/or teacher has most influenced your playing?
Shaham: No doubt that would be Herbert Stessin, my teacher since I was 8 years old. He has always been a fantastic guide, allowing me to find my own voice and personality while giving me an insight into the possibilities of sounds capable of being produced on a piano. He's someone whose ear I still turn to whenever I'm preparing a new work.
Q: How much influence has your brother Gil had on your career?
Shaham: That's hard to say. In some cases it has certainly been helpful to be known before I even do anything, but in others it has been the opposite — often people believe it is not possible to have two good musicians in one family, so they aren't really interested in the second one!
Speaking from a more personal point of view, Gil's fantastic musicianship has taught me a lot over the years. Things which he was able to learn through experience I was sometimes able to pick up on by watching closely, and that has really been helpful in my own development.
Q: Have you experienced with styles other than classical?
Shaham: I don't really play other styles of music, but not because I don't like them. I love all sorts of jazz, and go to clubs and listen to recordings regularly. But I kind of like that this is a type of music in which I'm not directly involved. I can just be a fan!
Q: Who are your favorite composers?
Shaham: Hmmm… the old favorite composer question! I'd like to say I really don't have one, but the truth is probably more that my favorite composer is Brahms and there are about 15 others tied just below him for first place on my list.
Q: Our previous PT Young Artist, pianist Jonathan Biss, said that the "Mozart concertos and the Beethoven sonatas are the two greatest bodies of work" for the piano. Would you agree?
Shaham: I'd have to add all the Brahms piano works, and then there'd be Bartok's oeuvre, and of course Bach, and then there's Schumann, and Chopin and and and and and…
Q: Do you have a preference among playing solo, chamber, and orchestral repertoire?
Shaham: One of the things I love most about being a pianist is that it's really like having several different kinds of careers at the same time. I relish being able to switch from being a soloist with orchestra to chamber musician to recitalist. It provides such a great variety of challenges and rewards.
I guess it's like not wanting to be limited by specific composers — I just want to be able to partake of everything that's good!
Q: Now for the lighter questions that we ask all our PT Young Artists... What's your favorite food?
Shaham: My favorite food? It would be easier to try to answer what foods I don't like! I'm not overly fond of lamb, and I hate coffee. Other than that, I'll pretty much eat anything happily, especially if it's sushi…
Q: Favorite movie?
Shaham: Favorite movie is a toss-up. When I really like a movie I tend to memorize it, so I guess that would give us Roxanne, Amadeus, North by Northwest, E.T., Vertigo, When Harry Met Sally, LA Story, and the list goes on.
Q: Favorite TV show?
Shaham: Current favorites are The West Wing and Law & Order, but I'm a sitcom buff and love introducing people to shows like Seinfeld or The Cosby Show.
Q: Favorite radio station? Radio show?
Shaham: Why, NPR, of course. And I will admit a secret childlike love of Car Talk!
Q: Favorite hangouts in New York?
Shaham: The planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, the Central Park Zoo, the Village Vanguard.
Q: Favorite Web site(s) that our PT Web viewers should check out?
Shaham: Check this out: there's a great game for my fellow juvenile adults out there called Snood (snood.com). Hours of fun (sometimes a few too many hours…) I also regularly read the daily strip on the Peanuts web site and play word games on Merriam-Webster's site.
Q: Favorite pastime, when you have free time?
Shaham: Reading. I'm insatiable and I'll read all sorts of different types of books.
Q: Do you have a guilty pleasure in music? Something you don't quite want to admit that you listen to but you totally love?
Shaham: Occasionally, only occasionally, I really need to listen to some Barry White!
Q:Thanks for taking the time to "chat" on the Web, Orli!