MUSIC / CHRIS PASLES : Hitting the Sweetest Notes at Youthful Age : Violinist Gil Shaham, 22, Is in a Hurry to Build Repertory Before He Turns 30

Hot on the heels of one hotshot young violinist comes another. Gil Shaham, 22, will play with the Los Angeles Philharmonic under Esa-Pekka Salonen just two weeks after Julian Rachlin, 18, had the same opportunity.

What's going on?

"It sort of comes in waves," the soft-spoken Shaham said in a phone interview from Oklahoma City, where he was appearing prior to his local date. "For a couple of years there are no young players; then, all of a sudden, there are maybe a lot."

The two violinists don't know each other, but they have one thing in common beyond their youth: Both are concerned about using the next few years to build their repertory.

"I was talking to a friend of mine, a pianist, who kind of scared me," said Shaham. "He said that every piece he learned before the age of 30, he knew a lot better than any piece he learned afterward. I don't know if that's true. But this is the right time to learn as much repertory as possible."

Rachlin had expressed the same thought in these pages recently.

"I don't know him at all," Shaham said, "but it sounds about the same as what I want to be doing. There is a lot of great repertoire that is not played that much.

"The Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Beethoven and Brahms concertos are played a lot and are great pieces," said Shaham, who plays a 1699 Stradivarius named the "Countess Polignac."

"But for me, it's interesting to learn new literature. This year, I would work on the Walton and Dvorak" concertos.

He will play the Mendelssohn concerto with the Philharmonic on Friday and Sunday at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles and on Saturday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. The Orange County date is sponsored by the Philharmonic Society.

The work was not, in fact, his first choice because "this will be my third (tour playing the) Mendelssohn Concerto in Los Angeles."

But he recognizes that "there are so many factors in determining the program," he said. "There's a lot of back and forth. You have to look at the conductors' preferences, the orchestras' preferences. It depends on the season and the audiences' preference. You have to be realistic. Sometimes you get to play exactly what you want."

Besides, "I love the piece. I think it's pretty incredible. . . . The longer I live with it, the more--I don't know--it just feels like the longer I know it, the better I know it, the better I play it."

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Shaham was born in Illinois while his parents were visiting the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana.

He described them as "a family of mad scientists. My mom is in genetics. My father in physics. My older brother, who also went the way of my mom, is studying microbiology. I took a couple of courses in math just to keep up with the dinner conversation. But I wasn't the smart brother. I rebelled. I played the violin."

His parents were music lovers who had a large record collection and took the kids to concerts. "There was always music around the house," Shaham said. The family moved to Israel when he was 2. He began studying violin at 7 at the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem.

He made his concert debut with the Jerusalem Symphony. He was 10.

The family moved to New York City the following year, but not for his sake.

"It was a very lucky coincidence," he said. "My father got a sabbatical position in New York and my mother had just finished her doctorate and got a post-doctorate position. So it was great for me. I got to go to Juilliard.

"I was kind of the hotshot violinist from Israel. Suddenly I found myself with just lots of other hotshots. It was great, actually, because I think that's the great thing about that school, the students. The level of the playing is incredibly high, and you learn maybe even more from them than you do from your teachers."

He studied at Juilliard with famed pedagogue Dorothy DeLay, but now he relies mostly on "friends who objectively tell me their opinion (about his playing). I have very, very good friends, who are not shy about telling me what they're hearing."

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The family still lives in the Bronx. He has his "little cubicle on the West Side. But actually, I'm on the road almost all the time. New York is where I pay my phone bills."

He came to international prominence in 1989 when, on two days' notice, he substituted for an ailing Itzhak Perlman and played both the Bruch and Sibelius concertos with the London Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. To make the date, he was pulled out of an English literature class and put on a flight to London.

"Although professional life isn't what I expected--it's a lot of hotel rooms and airplanes--I'm very happy doing this. It's the perfect life for me. I love music, I love room service, I never really thought of leaving it. I've been very lucky so far, things have been going pretty well.

"I always wanted to do this, although I went through, around 13 or 14, sort of a questioning, 'Is this really what I want to be doing with my life?' " he said. "I guess it is. But the reasons have changed over the years. When I was little, I just loved the challenge of it. I liked the whole mechanism part of it. I thought it was kind of neat. I just wanted to be the best, to do as well as I can.

"Now it's gotten to the point that when I'm playing well, I think there is no feeling that's better. When I'm not playing well, there is no feeling that's worse."

* Gil Shaham will be soloist in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Esa-Pekka Salonen on Saturday at 8 p.m. at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. The Philharmonic Society-sponsored program also will include works by Ives and Prokofiev. $17 to $45. (714) 553-2422.

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