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.