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Violinist Shaham Surprised With Music Prize

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Violinist Shaham Surprised With Music Prize

Violinist Shaham Surprised With Music Prize

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Violinist Gil Shaham got a big career break 20 years ago, the kind that young musicians usually only fantasize about. The master violinist Itzhak Perlman got an ear infection, and Shaham, just 18 years old then, was asked to sit in. A stellar career took off. Then this week, another surprise. Just as Gil Shaham finished playing a concert at Lincoln Center Thursday night, broadcast live on PBS, his good friend, the conductor Gustavo Dudamel, rose from the audience and called out, stop! Dudamel came on stage to announce that Shaham had won the Avery Fisher Prize, one of the most prestigious in the music world. It's worth $75,000.

Joining us now is Gil Shaham. Mr. Shaham, thanks so much for coming on the program.

Mr. GIL SHAHAM (Prize Winning Violinist): Thank you. Thank you. Please call me Gil.

SEABROOK: OK. And you have your Stradivarius with you?

Mr. SHAHAM: I do, I do. I brought it here, just in case.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAHAM: I don't know if anybody wants to make an offer.

SEABROOK: Well, congratulations on winning the Avery Fisher Prize. What does that mean?

Mr. SHAHAM: Thank you. I'm still just dumbfounded by the whole thing. It's a prize that was awarded to many musicians that I revere, and I'm just thrilled.

SEABROOK: Other winners are Yo-Yo Ma, Richard Stoltzman. Last year, it was Joshua Bell. Let's talk about what exactly happened.

Mr. SHAHAM: We were onstage. I was playing with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and with violinist Adele Anthony, who is also my wife, and with pianist Jonathan Feldman. And we just did a concert devoted to the works of Pablo de Sarasate. And Sarasate was a Spanish master who passed away a hundred years ago. So this year, there are many sort of centenary celebrations of Sarasate.

And I'm sure Gustavo won't mind if I tell this story. This whole year, I've been sort of looking at Sarasate and trying to learn more, trying to become a Sarasate head, you know. And in June I was having dinner with Gustavo and his wife, Eloisa, and I said, look, there are all these famous violin pieces by Sarasate, "Zapateado," you know, "Habanera," but I have no idea how to dance these things, you know. And Gustavo who, besides being a conductor, is a trained violinist and a very good dancer, said, look, I know how to dance the "Zapateado." Let me show you. And he got up off the table and did a little flourish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAHAM: And his wife, Eloisa, said, no, that's not how you do it. I'll show you - because Eloisa is a professional dancer. And I said, look, guys. In November I'm going to have this concert in New York, and it's broadcast on TV. And wouldn't it be a kick if you came on and did a dance lesson for us? And at the time, Gustavo said, I'm sorry, I can't come.


Mr. SHAHAM: I'm nowhere near New York. And we finished the concert. Then suddenly Gustavo comes on. And in my head, I'm convinced that he's coming on to dance the "Zapateado."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAHAM: And he's walking towards me, and I tried to - ladies and gentlemen, Maestro Dudamel. Very crazy, my head was spinning. And then he said, look, Gil, I'm here to award you this prize. And it really was - the whole thing is very embarrassing. Please don't watch it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAHAM: I really - I was - my head was literally spinning, you know.

SEABROOK: Now, I want to talk to you a little bit about Pablo de Sarasate, the Spanish composer you were playing. But would you play a little bit for us before we talk about him? There's a section of Sarasate's sort of reworking of the theme from "Carmen" where your fingers just absolutely skitter all over the violin. Would you mind just playing that section? I know you don't have an orchestra behind you, but would you play that for us?

Mr. SHAHAM: Sure.

(Soundbite of Mr. Shaham performing an excerpt of "Carmen Fantasy")

SEABROOK: That is so much fun. And that's a good example of Sarasate's work, isn't it? He would take other works and sort of play with them, remake them.

Mr. SHAHAM: One of the things Sarasate would do is he would come to cities all over the world, I guess mostly in Europe, but he also played here in the United States, and he would play the most famous tunes of the day. You know, he would play the most famous operas on his violin. And we have a lot of these opera transcriptions left - kind of Reader's Digest versions of operas. And it's like, you know, all of "Forza del Destino" in 12 minutes, no singing.

Besides those opera transcriptions, he also wrote many original compositions. And, you know, another thing that he was kind of a pioneer was he brought Spanish folk music to the concert stage. He was the first - one of the first to really dig into the roots of Spanish folklore. He's one of those incredible towering figures.

SEABROOK: Do you have a favorite passage of Sarasate's work that you like to play?

Mr. SHAHAM: It's hard to say. There are really a lot. Maybe his most famous piece is the "Zigeunerweisen," the "Gypsy Aires," and that piece has really become kind of an anthem for violinists. You know, when people think of a violin playing a sad song, that's the one that they think of.

SEABROOK: Would you play a piece of it for us?

(Soundbite of Mr. Shaham performing an excerpt of "Zigeunerweisen")

SEABROOK: Oh, it's just...

Mr. SHAHAM: Hi, Andrea.

SEABROOK: It's so sad and beautiful.

Mr. SHAHAM: Thank you.

SEABROOK: Can I ask you about your violin? You play a Stradivarius, and it's one of those lauded ones that has a name.

Mr. SHAHAM: That's right. That's a Stradivarius 1699, plus tax.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. SHAHAM: No, it's not.

SEABROOK: The year that it was made.

Mr. SHAHAM: Actually, that's the 1699th time I've used that line, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SHAHAM: It's called the Countess Polignac Stradivarius. And the Countess Polignac was a famous arts patron on the court of Louis the Fourteenth. And she was also very much involved in Venetian musical life. I think she had a lot to do with Vivaldi's music and his commissions. She was the first to take the "Four Seasons" to Paris. And I like to think that maybe this violin had something to do with that.

SEABROOK: I want to ask you about your new CD before we let you go. You have recorded a CD of the Elgar "Violin Concerto in B Minor."

Mr. SHAHAM: It's an unbelievable piece. It really grabs you. It's a huge epic of a piece. And I guess the word is unrequited. You know, there's something about unrequited longing in this piece. It starts with six notes that ask a question, you know.

(Soundbite of Mr. Shaham performing an excerpt of Elgar's "Violin Concerto in B Minor")

Mr. SHAHAM: And it's in this dark key of B minor, you know. And in this key of B minor, you know that this one note that, you know, you have this C sharp.

(Soundbite of Mr. Shaham performing an excerpt of Elgar's "Violin Concerto in B Minor")

Mr. SHAHAM: Has to resolve down...

(Soundbite of Mr. Shaham performing an excerpt of Elgar's "Violin Concerto in B Minor")

Mr. SHAHAM: Down to B. But it doesn't, you know. It takes five minutes for it to resolve. It just clings to that note.

(Soundbite of Mr. Shaham performing an excerpt of Elgar's "Violin Concerto in B Minor")

Mr. SHAHAM: And finally resolves it to that B. And I remember when I first spoke to David Zinman about this, he said, look, this is the saddest music ever written. He said about this - the phrase. He said, look Gil, when you're playing that phrase, just think this is the saddest music ever written. And it's true that once that C sharp is resolved, it's just devastating. It's completely devastating. It's sort of like all this hope that you've kept, you know, in your ear for the past two minutes has completely come apart.


Mr. SHAHAM: And it's not without its mystery. In the violin concerto, Elgar leaves for us an inscription at the top of the first page. He says in Spanish - and I'm sure I'm going to say this wrong - but it says, "Aqui esta encerrada el alma de" and then dot, dot, dot, dot, dot. You know, here is enshrined the soul of - and these five dots.

(Soundbite of Elgar's "Violin Concerto in B Minor")

SEABROOK: Gil Shaham, thank you so much for playing for us and joining us today. And congratulations on the Avery Fisher Prize. It sounds like a great honor.

Mr. SHAHAM: Thank you very much. Thank you.

SEABROOK: Violinist Gil Shaham. His new CD of the Elgar "Violin Concerto in B Minor" is out this week on his label, Canary Classics.

Parting words tonight from the soon-to-be centenarian we profiled earlier, Claude Levi-Strauss. He wrote, "The musical creator is a being comparable to the gods, and music itself the supreme mystery of the science of man."

(Soundbite of Elgar's "Violin Concerto in B Minor")

And that's All Things Considered from NPR News. I'm Andrea Seabrook. Have a good night.

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