A concert with old friends
Alasdair Neale, Gil Shaham, and Jian Wang reunite for the SVSS
By ADAM TANOUS
Express Staff Writer
The top musicians in the world tend to live intertwined lives. Their paths
often cross early in life when the musical world first identifies their abilities.
The young and talented are funneled toward the same great instructors,
schools, recitals, and symphonies. Such is the experience of Gil Shaham and his two old
friends, cellist Jian Wang and conductor Alasdair Neale.
Neale and Shaham, recently spoke with a reporter about each other, music
and the Sun Valley Summer Symphony.
When Shaham, considered by many professionals as one of the best
violinists in the world, performs with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony tomorrow it will be
the first time he has visited here. He will perform with Wangunder the direction of
Neale, the associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Both men have figured
heavily in Shahams musical world.
Wang, now 31, was 10 years old when he was featured in the documentary
film, "From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China." With Sterns support,
Wang was able to come to the United States to study music.
Home in New York City between concert appearances in Tanglewood and
Switzerland, Shaham spoke on the telephone with a reporter. He was excited to make his
first appearance in Sun Valley. He described his upcoming concert with the SVSS as
"really a concert with old friends."
When Shaham was "12 or 13" and a member of the youth orchestra
at the Juilliard School, the internationally renowned school of performing arts in New
York City. Alasdair Neale, this years SVSS music director, was his conductor. They
became friends there and have been in touch ever since. Shaham said that he learned a
tremendous amount from Neale.
Neale, for his part, vividly remembers meeting Shaham.
Talking from his hotel room in Aspen, Colo., where he is performing in the
Aspen Music Festival, Neale said, "The very first time I heard Gil play, (Shaham was
12) I knew he was going to be one of the worlds great violinists."
Asked what qualities he would look for in a world class musician and, in
fact, saw in the young Shaham, Neale said, "beautiful sound, playing in time and in
tune, and that indefinable quality of musicianshipbeing able to communicate
something special to you as they are playing."
It is apparent that Shaham had this quality even before meeting Neale.
When Shaham first began studying the violin in Israel, he was 7 years old. Very quickly,
he was granted scholarships and, in 1981, earned debuts with the Jerusalem Symphony and
the Israel Philharmonic. By 1982, he was studying with music instructors Dorothy DeLay and
Jens Ellerman at Aspen.
Shahams transition from child prodigy to prominence on the world
stage of classical music was sudden, to say the least.
In 1989, Shaham was a junior in high school reading the Canterbury Tales
like the rest of his classmates. He was abruptly pulled out of class to receive a call
from the directors of the London Symphony Orchestra. They asked him to substitute for
Itzhak Perlman, who had suddenly fallen ill with an ear infection.
The next day Shaham was practicing in a London hotel room and subsequently
performing with the London Symphony Orchestra. Almost overnight, Shaham had filled
Perlmans shoes. The buzz about Shaham began immediately thereafter.
Shaham, who practices at least, three hours a day, would never consider
himself as having been a prodigy. He expressed a more personal perspective on his path
through the world of music.
Shaham said very thoughtfully, as if reliving the time, "When I was a
teenager, I was pretty serious about music. But I kept asking myself, Is this what I
want with my life? It really was kind of a crisis."
Shaham was quiet for several moments, then added, "Now when Im
playing, when its going well and I have the audiences attention, thats
the best feeling in the world." He paused again. "I think thats why I
continued to play."
That connection with the audience seems to be of paramount importance to
Shaham. He said, "The audience is always a huge part of a concert. You get different
vibes from different audiences
Im much more comfortable with concerts than I am
Asked why that was the case, Shaham responded, "Ive probably
played several thousand concerts and made only about 20 recordings." Sounding
somewhat intimidated by the recording process he said, "and not only that but with a
recording, what you do today will stay on that recording forever."
For Neale, the concerts tend to be a little more stressful.
One of the challenges Neale faces is that he has to pull each concert
together using musicians from all over the country with only one rehearsal. Neale said
with that one rehearsal "he has to be very organized and focused to address the
points that need to be addressed. At the same time, of course, it is exhilarating."
Besides conducting virtuoso performers like Shaham, Neale, as musical
director, is also responsible for selecting the pieces for nine concerts. Asked how he
goes about choosing the music, Neale said he chooses pieces that he has always wanted to
do and that the musicians havent played here.
He likened the process to putting on a dinner party.
"You cant have a dinner party of just desserts," he said.
He hastened to add that as the size of the orchestra has increased over
the years, he has had the opportunity to choose from a greater variety of music.
Yet another thing these men have in common is that they lead extremely
busy lives. Neale spoke to a reporter after three hours night sleep and just before
From Aspen, Neale traveled to San Francisco, then drove to Sun Valley.
After the SVSS, he will go back to San Francisco and then tour Europe for two months with
the San Francisco Symphony. After that, his regular symphony season begins in the City by
Shaham, for his part, also works mostly on the road, playing all over the
world. His wife, Adele Anthony, is a violinist and sometimes travels and plays with him.
In August, after his performance with the SVSS, Shaham will travel to
South America, then to the Verbier Festival in Switzerland where he will play more
concerts with Wang. The two plan to culminate their concerts together by recording the
Brahms Double Concerto with the Berlin Philharmonic.
While both men spend little actual time togethertheir schedules do
not allow itone gets the feeling that the music that infuses their lives also ties
them together. It is as if the music of the masterssuch as the works of Brahms and
Mendelssohn and Elgarprovides touchstones for the souls of these musicians.
They may be apart in time and place for most of the year, yet they remain
closely connected by their experiences with, and love of, great music. On rare occasions,
these very talented men do cross actual paths, as during the current concert season in Sun
Valley. We are fortunate to be present for this reunion.