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Party With Paganini MAG
Party with Paganini
by R. M., Newton, MA
In the main ballroom of the prestigious Ritz Carlton hotel, a room full of elegantly dressed, proper and carefully-mannered people sipped wine, ate finger pastries and mingled. In this sea of grace roamed a man with rumpled, boyish curly brown hair, wearing a maroon blazer, and a light blue shirt with a "Butthead" pencil in the breast pocket. He laughed and talked, often playing a fiddle casually rested on his shoulder while he interacted, strumming fast paced licks of virtuostic selections of Paganini. The man's name was Gil Shaham, a twenty-three-year-old, Grammy-nominated, world-renowned violinist. The "fiddle" is a 1699 ("1699 plus tax," Shaham says with a grin) Stradivarius, a maker generally accepted as the finest in history. The event is the final stop on a tour of the U.S. in which Shaham and guitarist Goran Sollscher promote their new CD "Paganini for Two" by performing excerpts to selected audiences as well as to schools and radio stations.
The performance itself was spectacular. I am not a big guitar-music fan, but to be three feet from two incredible musicians working precisely together to produce some beautiful pieces by Paganini was an experience that soared beyond my expectations. Shaham obviously enjoyed every moment of the performance, as his deep-set eyes darted around the room making contact with members of the audience. He frequently smiled and cocked his dark brown eyebrows at the lighter moments of the piece and was totally consumed with passion during the more dramatic passages. Sollscher, the guitarist, entered the world of harmony by closing his eyes and gently rocking to the music, his large black blazer draped over his thin frame.
In between pieces, John Chester, an announcer for WCRB (a classical radio station) and the "MC" of the evening, interviewed the performers with a smile, for earlier in the day he interviewed them on WCRB and found that he couldn't get a "straight answer" from Shaham.
"You've done some research into the life of Paganini in order to more fully understand the music?" he asked.
"Yes," said Shaham, "one thing we found was this ... Here's Paganini's First Violin Concerto -" He played the opening of the very difficult work. "And here's the theme song to 'Dick Van Dyke,'" he then played the opening tune of the TV show and laughed with the audience at the striking and humorous similarity between the two. Sollscher shook his head and Shaham looked over at him, doubling over in laughter.
If Shaham seemed less than serious in his chatter with the audience, any doubt of his seriousness as a musician was shattered completely by his playing. Fingers flying he never missed a note; his rich and mature sound was mesmerizing. The ensemble was polished and secure, and together they made the most simple tunes as exciting to listen to as the flashy licks.
After the concert I had the pleasure of interviewing this rising star and discovered how human and fun this man really was. Having spoken with his tour manager earlier, I discovered that Shaham was becoming a Sega addict on the tour. When I mentioned his Sega habit, he drew close to me and lowered his voice.
"I tell you, I used to have this Nintendo system," he said in his slight but very understandable Israeli accent, his eyes alive with energy. "I had one when I was thirteen or fourteen ... I played to the point which I really had to cut the wires! Now on this tour they have this Sega ... We have NBA Jam and Wimbledon. Those are two excellent games. So we haven't been getting sleep."
He told me of how when he was young he knew he wanted "to be a fiddler" except for an occasional urge to be a cab driver.
"I sort of led a double life. I did my music on the weekends and during the week I went to school. It was sort of conventional wisdom that you can't mix the two worlds. But it's not true ... There's a 'frosted flake syndrome: ' the 'I-hate-to-admit-it-but-I-like-Paganini,' you know?
"... Now I'm doing what I've always wanted to do. It's the perfect life for me. I love music and I love room service."
Why should teens listen to and enjoy classical music over the more obvious choices such as rock?
"I think our generation is going to make a difference with classical music. Because we're so used to the hype and the ads and are so trained to deal with it in the media we're able to sift through the fluff and get straight to the substance. Nothing has more substance than classical m