San Diego Spotlight : Young Violinist's Career Continues to Gain Acclaim

Sometimes a musical career is launched in a moment of unexpected glory. In 1943, Leonard Bernstein took over the podium of the New York Philharmonic for an ailing Bruno Walter and was instantly hailed as the new American prodigy conductor.

In 1986, Japanese wunderkind Midori broke two of the four strings on her violin, yet finished her Tanglewood festival concerto performance without dropping a note. This feat catapulted the 14-year-old musician into the headlines.

In April, 1989, on a day's notice, Israeli-American violinist Gil Shaham filled in with the London Symphony for an indisposed Itzhak Perlman. The 18-year-old musician had been plucked from his regular classes at Horace Mann High School in the Bronx to confirm his availability. The next morning he flew to London to play concertos by Bruch and Sibelius under Michael Tilson Thomas. Shaham was a hit with both Thomas and the London public.

Shalam arrives next week in San Diego, no longer an unknown high school fiddler.

On Thursday and Friday, the now-heralded young musician will perform Erich Korngold's Violin Concerto with the San Diego Symphony under music director Yoav Talmi. The concerto may be unfamiliar here, but Shaham has already performed it with Talmi at the Aspen Music Festival in 1988.

Since the London concerts, Shaham is in such great demand that his university studies are on hold.

"I started studying math at Columbia," he said in a phone interview from his New York apartment. "The truth is, I haven't had much time to be there. In fact, this term I'm not even taking any courses. Most of the time I'm on the road playing, although I'm still officially enrolled. The university has been helpful and allows me to play as often as I can."

Shaham's reason for taking up math is indicative of his sense of humor and refreshingly unself-conscious attitude.

"I chose math to keep up with family's dinner conversation. My older brother is a biochemist studying at MIT in Boston." And both his parents are scientists.

Shaham had not exactly been unnoticed before his London Symphony performances with Thomas. He had already soloed with the Berlin Philharmonic and at age 16 had signed a recording contract with Deutsche Grammophon. His teacher Dorothy DeLay and other advisers, however, did not want him overexposed prematurely.

"Miss DeLay says it's better to take it easy now, and my managment from the beginning put a cap on the number of concerts a year I could play."

This low profile also kept his ego in check. He never thought of himself as a prodigy.

"When I came to Juilliard at age 11, there were so many other young violinists that I never really felt stigmatized with the 'prodigy' label."

His parents insisted that he attend a regular high school while studying at Juilliard. But their advice that he pursue a regular academic degree rather than a music degree is currently being tested by his success as a performer.

Shaham grew up in Israel, and he holds both Israeli and American citizenship because his physicist father was on a sabbatical at the University of Illinois when Shaham was born. He calls New York home--"That's where I pay my phone bills"--but he uses comedian Alan King's diplomtic description of his nationality.

"If Israel is my mother, America is my girlfriend."

Violinists such as Pinchas Zuckerman have taken up conducting, but Shaham is not ready for that route yet.

"I've never been attracted to it--you have to stand there the whole time with your back to the audience."

Bach's birthday. "Happy Birthday to You" is one of the few musical themes J. S. Bach never worked into a cantata, chorale prelude or keyboard variation.

But the local Bach Society will raise the ubiquitous song at 8 p.m. next Saturday to celebrate the august German composer's birthday. In praise of Bach's 307th natal day anniversary, the society will present the Orpheus Ensemble in several Bach cantatas in the La Jolla Congregational Church.

The same evening, UC San Diego Bach scholar Jane Stevens will give a lecture titled "Too many notes?" and local composer James Whitsitt will give a demonstration of computer software that generates Bach-like counterpoint. Prolific performer Susan Barrett, well-known Baroque oboist, will receive the society's annual Brandenburg Award.

And Society president Scott Paulson promises a huge birthday cake for all.

Moscow bound. In September, San Diego Chamber Orchestra music director Donald Barra will conduct the Moscow Philharmonic and the Moscow Chamber Orhcestra in recordings for Koch International Classics. The record company is also the chamber orchestra's label, for which Barra and his players have made three recordings. Barra's recent recording of music by British composer Matthew Arnold for Koch International is scheduled to be released later this month.

CRITIC'S CHOICE

FREE CONCERT BY NEW ENSEMBLE

The Skolion Trio, a newly formed chamber ensemble of local musicians, will give a noon hour concert Monday in Horton Plaza's Lyceum Theatre.

Damian Bursill-Hall, accomplished principal flutist with the San Diego Symphony and San Diego Opera Orchestra, will be featured in Bohuslav Martinu's Trio for Flute, Cello and Piano. Cellist Thomas Stauffer of the San Diego State University music faculty and pianist Cynthia Darby are Skolion's other members.

Their program opens with Haydn's Piano Trio in D Major, Hob. XV:16. This free concert is presented by San Diego Mini-Concerts.

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