The Gil Shaham Story: A Star Is Born, Maybe : Violinist, 18, replaces an ailing Itzhak Perlman

<i> Hanani is a free-lance writer specializing in the arts</i>

Launching a musical career involves pitfalls and a mystique much like those surrounding the creation of a souffle.

Should you fail to beat it into readiness or to present it at the perfect moment, it will sink, never to be resurrected in quite the same way.

Last month, the budding career of 18-year-old Gil Shaham had an opportunity to rise to new heights.

Opportunity presented itself as a severe ear infection that struck superstar violinist Itzhak Perlman two days before he was scheduled to play a six-concerto, three-night marathon with the London Symphony Orchestra at Royal Festival Hall.


Perlman’s doctor ordered him “not to fly, to keep the ears in New York.” His cancellation and subsequent replacement became front-page news in London.

Shaham, still a senior at the Horace Mann School in New York and a student at the Juilliard School, was first contacted by his manager while taking a make-up exam on Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales.” A day later, he stepped off the Concorde at Heathrow to find cameras and pencils poised and himself the object of intense curiosity.

Over here, his story wound up in every New York City daily. ABC News’ Peter Jennings named him the Person of the Week on May 5 and devoted a long segment to his successful pinch-hit concert.

Interviewed just after he returned from London, he sounded still somewhat shell-shocked. He was packing to go off for yet another engagement--this one booked a year in advance--to play the Paganini Concerto with the Phoenix Symphony.

“I’m still wondering how all this attention came about,” he admitted.

Throughout, his only misgivings had been that fans who had paid to hear Perlman might boo and hiss when Perlman didn’t appear. Apparently, he needn’t have worried.

And what does the London substitution bode for the future?

“It’s been just great publicity,” Shaham says. “I don’t know quite how to react to it. I know it’s not going to change my playing--although wouldn’t it be nice if all of a sudden I played like Itzhak Perlman?


“I talked to some people who said the best thing for me now is just to quietly go back to practicing and studying.”

How does someone who has been playing the instrument for barely 10 years get to step in for the world’s most recognizable violin soloist on 24 hours notice, in a major music capital--and apparently to virtually everyone’s satisfaction?

The answer is complex. Shaham actually is not unknown among violin cognoscenti. He already has appeared with the Philadelphia and Cleveland orchestras, not to mention the Berlin Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris and the London Symphony.

His advancement has generated considerable interest since his debut as a 10-year-old prodigy with the Jerusalem Symphony under Alexander Schneider. More recently he was signed by Deutsche Grammophon for recordings.


Still, there are any number of established violinists who leap to mind as more likely substitutes for Perlman.

“When it became evident that Itzhak Perlman would not be able to keep his engagements, the London Symphony put out an all-points bulletin to managements in America and Europe,” explained Byron Gustafson, Shaham’s manager and a touring administrator at I.C.M. Management in New York. The first night had to be canceled.

“Initially, they hoped to find a violinist of comparable stature, but as the hours ticked by, they began to consider a younger violinist as an exciting possibility. There were several candidates his age with our office, including Midori and Anne Akiko Meyers, and for several hours they each kept in touch from phone booths at their respective schools.

“In the end, after the London Symphony checked all possibilities and considered which concertos everyone had ready to go, they felt they would like to invite Gil.”


Michael Tilson Thomas, the conductor, accepted the suggestion of the Bruch and Sibelius concertos for the remaining evenings and restructured the programs to balance the loss of other concertos.

“This kind of international coverage of a young musician certainly can help to get him a wider name,” says Gustafson. “Perhaps there was a risk, but there were very careful conversations. Gil felt he could accomplish what was required.”

In the end, it was the extra-musical angle that caught the fancy of the press. Critical reception in London was positive, albeit reserved.

Gerald Larner, the Guardian reviewer, found much to praise and called the soloist “technically phenomenal at age 18.” Nevertheless, he raised the question whether “Shaham has the potential to develop those other qualities that make a great musician.”


He described the performance as “obviously well coached and intelligently executed, but there was no compelling reason why, on this level, we should have been listening to Gil Shaham rather than any other well-equipped violinist.”

The annals of the music business are liberally spiced with similar piquant cases, or at least, it is the successful-replacement stories that endure. Everyone knows about the afternoon when Leonard Bernstein stepped in for an indisposed Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic, or the time a young cellist named Arturo Toscanini took over for a maestro who was hissed off the stage in Rio de Janeiro.

In each instance, the important ingredients in opening up a nascent career were timing, the ability to turn (someone else’s) adversity to advantage, and, of course, outstanding potential in an individual who was groomed and readied for just such an occasion.

Dorothy DeLay, Shaham’s teacher since he arrived from Israel with his family five years ago, also taught Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Shlomo Mintz. She was consulted at each stage of the discussions.


“It’s part of our mythology,” she says. “A young unknown person gets an opportunity to substitute and become famous himself. Gil had played and recorded in London. He’s a wonderful performer, very secure, and he could choose from his own repertoire. We didn’t have any real concern that this was too soon for him.”

Though there has not been any violinistic interaction per se between the two violinists, Shaham did for a time play in a trio with Perlman’s daughter, the pianist Navah Perlman, now a student at Brown University. Occasionally, when rehearsals took place in his living room, Perlman coached them. And it was Itzhak Perlman’s recordings that inspired a precocious 4-year-old to request that his parents buy him a violin in the first place.

Shaham must be resolute about his calling as a musician. He just turned down acceptance at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. (It was his manager, not he, who informed an inquisitive reporter of this fact.) He will enroll next fall at a new joint program that enables him to continue his musical studies at Juilliard and his academic pursuits at Columbia. He expects to increase the number of concerts he gives from 60 this year to 75 during 1989-90. In a few days, Shaham could very well be stirring up more news, this time in the Soviet Union. On Tuesday he is scheduled to perform the Sibelius Concerto with the Leningrad Symphony, and on May 23 he repeats that work with the Moscow State Radio Symphony. He will also play a few recitals.

The prospect excites the young violinist. “I’ve heard so many contradictory stories,” he says. “My grandparents are Russian, from Crimea. I’m hoping to visit conservatories and really take a look around.”


The most tangible result of Shaham’s Festival Hall exploit is an invitation to return to London for the Berg Concerto in 1990. Further dates await him there in 1991.

Obviously, a potentially important career has begun. Whether a star has been born remains to be seen.