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Archive for November, 2008

Gil Shaham (Photo: J Henry Fair / DG)
Gil Shaham (Photo: J Henry Fair / DG)

American-born violinist Gil Shaham had just finished playing Sarasate at Lincoln Center Thursday night (20 November 2008), performing live on PBS’s Live from Lincoln Center.   He was about to exit the stage when a voice rang out from the audience: "Stop!"

It was the young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel, with whom Shaham played the Dvorak concerto in a much discussed New York Philharmonic concert last year.  "My friend, nice to see you," Dudamel continued.  "I have the honor to tell you that you have won the Avery Fisher Prize for 2008."

The Avery Fisher Prize, one of music’s most prestigious, is awarded from secret nominations.  The recipients are always surprised with the announcements.

Shaham’s musical life story reads almost like a classical music fairy tale.  Born of scientist parents, he began studying violin at the age of seven.  He played with the Israel Philharmonic when he was eleven.  The same year, he was admitted to the Juilliard School in New York.  He studied with Dorothy DeLay and Hyo Kang.

Gil Shaham got his big break in 1989 when Itzhak Perlman took ill and couldn’t play a solo gig with the London Symphony Orchestra.  Shaham flew to London on a day’s notice and played two concertos — the Bruch and the Sibelius.  The critics took note and so did concert-goers.  Shaham was only eighteen.

The following year, 1990, Shaham received the Avery Fisher Career Grant.  (His younger sister, pianist Orli Shaham, received the Fisher Career Grant in 1997.)

Both the grant and the prize are named for audio researcher and philanthropist Avery Fisher.  Fisher, an amateur violinist and lifelong music lover, served on the boards of the New York Philharmonic and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.  Forty to fifty years ago, a range of consumer audio equipment bore his name ("The Fisher").  Fisher sold his audio business to Emerson Electric in 1969 and, five years later, founded the Avery Fisher Prize.  He died in 1994.

"My father loved surprises," says Fisher’s daughter Nancy.

Listen:

Violinist Shaham Surprised With Music Prize at NPR

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A 1703 Stradivarius (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly every accomplished violinist lusts after a Stradivarius instrument, but few will ever own one. The number of surviving violins from Antonio Stradivari’s workshop has been estimated at fewer than 700. Instruments are seldom offered for sale, and the few that are command stratospheric prices. In 2006, a Strad sold at auction for over US$3.5 million.

Not surprisingly, many modern instrument makers and researchers have tried to duplicate the sound of a Strad, or at least to determine its secret. No one has yet conclusively done either.

The latest to claim he’s built a modern Stradivarius is Francis Schwarze of the Zurich-based Federal Materials, Science and Technology Institute. His secret: mushrooms.

Schwarze asserts that treating the maple wood used for the violin with Xylaria Longipes mushrooms, which grow on the bark of trees, reduces the wood’s density and at least comes closer to mimicing the unique Stradivarius sound.

However, many other researchers have suggested that the wood used in Stradivari’s violins was actually denser than usual. Between 1645 and 1750, extraordinarily cool temperatures in Europe caused trees to grow more slowly.

Still other scholars attribute the instruments’ distinctive sound to Stradivari’s subtle changes in the shape of the instrument.

Perhaps Schwarze has indeed discovered a way to make a better-sounding (or at least different-sounding) violin. But has he really duplicated the sound of a Stradivarius? The jury’s still out.

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Riccardo Muti (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

Riccardo Muti, former music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra and future leader of the Chicago Symphony, is famous for his fiery temper and his rather old-fashioned autocratic approach to music making. Compromise is not often part of his repertoire; just ask the musicians at La Scala, where his directorship disintegrated in discord 3 years ago (2005).

A few days ago (7 November) Muti walked away from an engagement over a dispute with none other than the Queen of England.

Muti was to have conducted a concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra today (Thursday 13 November 2008) in honor of the Prince of Wales’s 60th birthday, a performance explicitly requested by Queen Elizabeth II. Charles is an ardent supporter of the Philharmonia, and the Queen was apparently an admirer of the conductor. She’d attended performances Muti conducted in La Scala and had nominated him for a knighthood. Furthermore, Muti has a history with the Philharmonia; he was their principal conductor from 1973 to 1982.

However, both Queen and Prince expressed concern about the length and "appropriateness" of Muti’s program. After some discussion, he bailed. The Philharmonia has been tight-lipped about Muti’s original plans; but according to Muti, "For ceremonial reasons that I don’t know, the program was shortened and it was decided that the orchestra would only play God Save the Queen and another piece by a British musician."

British conductor Christopher Warren-Green stepped in to replace Muti.

This coming Saturday Charles will throw his own celebration at his Highgrove estate in Gloucestershire. The musical entertainment will be provided by Rod Stewart. Even the 63 year old rock singer couldn’t avoid royal editing, though. Stewart was reportedly asked to omit Do Ya Think I’m Sexy from his set as "too raucous."

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