Because of the demands of his touring schedule, violinist Gil Shaham rarely does last-minute substitutions. “I was going to say maybe once or twice a season,” he said. “But I think that’s probably too many times. Maybe every couple of seasons, something like that.”
But this time, when Symphony Center Presents needed a replacement for Martha Argerich and Itzhak Perlman on its Chamber Music Series for March 18, Shaham happened to have an open day in his schedule and a recital program, in which he will be joined by pianist Akira Eguchi, at the ready. “It made sense, so we were very happy to be able to accept the invitation,” he said.
It also didn’t hurt that an affiliate of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was doing the asking. Shaham, who performs regularly in Orchestra Hall, has a deep respect for the CSO. “I love the city,” he said. “The symphony is incredible. For a musician, there is so much to experience in Chicago and so much to admire. I’m very lucky to have many friends there.”
At the same time, the violinist was born in Champaign-Urbana, where his Israeli parents were on an academic fellowship at the University of Illinois, and he retains a fondness for the state in general. Although he doesn’t remember his first two years in Illinois before his parents moved back to Israel, he has “very happy childhood memories” of another year he spent back in the college town when he was 7 or so. “Whenever I think of coming back to [Illinois], I find myself smiling,” he said. “I’m always happy to come back.”
Shaham and Eguchi, who made his New York recital debut in 1992, met some 30 years at the Aspen (Colo.) Music Festival. Shaham was impressed when he heard the Japanese-born pianist play and asked if he might be interested in performing together. “I think we played some Brahms sonatas together, and [we] have been playing ever since,” the violinist said.
After an unusual break of a few years from touring together, in part so could Shaham could perform a series of solo Bach programs, the two returned to the stage last fall and Feb. 15-21 with a new recital program. “That’s still very strange for me to be alone on stage, and so I’m very happy to go onstage with him, and he’s amazing,” Shaham said. “He’s an incredible pianist, a great artist but also a good friend for many, many years. ”
Having a longtime recital partner that he trusts unreservedly means a great deal to Shaham. “I have so much respect for him,” he said. “He knows me so well. I feel so lucky to play with him. Something like the Franck Sonata, we’ve played for maybe for 30 years. We’ve grown together, and we’ve changed together. I’m trying to think of an analogy, but imagine a friendship of two people who grow up together and know each other. You just keep getting closer as musicians and people.”
In putting together their current recital program, Shaham and Eguchi asked themselves a simple question: What would they have the most fun playing? Over the past few seasons, the lineup gradually evolved. The only works on the original list were the Praeludium and Allegro (In the Style of Pugnani) by celebrated 20th-century violinist Fritz Kreisler and the Franck Sonata in A Major from 1886. “It was actually only recently that we started putting the Franck Sonata at the end,” Shaham said. “That seems to work. There is something about that miracle of a melody in the last movement that seems to be a good way to end and audiences seem to respond to it.”
He has wanted to perform the Praeludium since he studied it in music school. “When we started thinking about this program, I said, we have to do this, we have to start with the Praeludium and Allegro,” he said. “And we enjoy playing it.”
At one point, there were a few works on the lineup by Camille Saint-Saëns, but those eventually fell off, and two recent works were added: Scott Wheeler’s Sonata No. 2 for Violin and Piano (The Singing Turk) and Avner Dorman’s Sonata No. 3 for Violin and Piano (Nigunim). The former was inspired by Larry Wolff’s book of the same title, and each of its three movements is based on the music associated with singing Turks in three different historical operas. “So each of the three movements is very, very different in character,” Shaham said. “It’s kind of a tour de force for the composer, because he writes in many different styles. I find that it really connects with an audience.”
Nigunim was written in 2011 for Shaham and his sister, Orli, an acclaimed pianist. “It’s a piece that I’ve played maybe a dozen times now and love,” Shaham said. “The idea was to write some sort of concert music based on Jewish folk material.” According to the composer’s notes, it draws on North African Jewish cantillations, Central Asian Jewish wedding songs, klezmer music and Ashkenazy prayers. Rounding out the program is Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major, BWV 1006, a nod to Shaham’s recent focus on the composer’s solo works for the instrument.
“I hope that people enjoy the pieces that maybe they don’t know,” he said. “And maybe they feel the same way I do — I just love hearing Franck Sonata again. I love hearing the E Major Bach Partita again.”