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For the week of August 2 through 8, 2000

‘A concert with old friends’

Alasdair Neale, Gil Shaham, and Jian Wang reunite for the SVSS

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 Wang—under the direction of Neale, the associate conductor of the San Francisco Symphony. Both men have figured heavily in Shaham’s 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 Stern’s 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 year’s 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 world’s 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 musicianship—being 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.

Shaham’s 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 Perlman’s 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 I’m playing, when it’s going well and I have the audience’s attention, that’s the best feeling in the world." He paused again. "I think that’s 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…I’m much more comfortable with concerts than I am with recording."

Asked why that was the case, Shaham responded, "I’ve 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 haven’t played here.

He likened the process to putting on a dinner party.

"You can’t 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 another concert.

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 the Bay.

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 together—their schedules do not allow it—one gets the feeling that the music that infuses their lives also ties them together. It is as if the music of the masters—such as the works of Brahms and Mendelssohn and Elgar—provides 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.


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