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Generation Exceptional

"We had a rule: absolutely no classical music whatsoever."
Orli Shaham laughs at the memory -- and its obvious irony. The young musician is now a mature married woman at 22, and she's recalling the nuptial ceremony, held more than a month ago in her homeland of Israel. Orli's a world-class concert pianist. Her husband, Ziv Arazi, is a promising violinist she met while both were studying at Juilliard. Orli's brother, 27-year-old Gil Shaham, is probably the preeminent violinist of his day -- the Jascha Heifetz of Generation X. But for this occasion, none of them played a single note of Bach, Brahms or even one of Beethoven's romances for violin. It was an unusual day for the Shahams, to put it mildly.

Gil and Orli are rarities in themselves: well-adjusted, good-natured prodigies. Orli's manner is light and self-deprecating, and she cracks jokes repeatedly during the interview; Gil's a sincere and personable fellow who seems to have little real notion of what an astounding musician he truly is. Native talent wells from both Shahams, though neither sibling has taken the gift for granted. Both have been studying incessantly and performing publicly since about the age of five, and it's a fair bet that Orli's wedding marked the first day in either of their lives that wasn't defined in some central way by the classical oeuvre. That's the sort of commitment it takes to command a stage the way Gil does now and Orli will one day soon, as she matures in the way that only fine wine and artists seem to.

For the past four or five years, Orli carried a full class load at New York City's Columbia University; the recent graduate says she "enjoyed reading various lengthy and pompous books" while earning her undergrad degree in modern European history. During that period, she showed flashes of potential brilliance in an abbreviated series of solo recitals and appearances with the likes of the National Symphony Orchestra, the Jerusalem Symphony and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Gil utilized the latter ensemble for his top-selling 1995 retooling of Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." The same year that album was released, Gil and Orli played their first-ever public duet, a phenomenal recital in Scottsdale, Arizona, that displayed the Israeli-American sibs' exquisite taste for deep repertory, their innate gift for drama and nuance and their astonishing intermingling of passion and restraint. The two played in perfect lock step, like musical mind readers. Not a note or gesture was wasted.

Washington Post critic Joseph McLellan opined earlier this year that "Orli and Gil Shaham stopped performing together in public some time ago, evidently to help her establish an independent identity of her own."

Not so, says Orli: "We never really started performing together. We consciously tried to separate, especially at the beginning of our careers, because he's so much older and he was much more established when I was just starting to perform."

The brother/sister tandem did collaborate on last year's Deutsche Grammophon disc Dvorak for Two and its supporting tour, and Orli says they're in the "thinking stages" for their next, to-be-determined project. "We don't want to spend not enough time playing together, and neither do we want to spend too much time playing together," she says. "So we take it as a project-by-project thing, and every time we have a really good idea, we just go with it."

For now, though, the classical whiz kids are on different paths that lead in the same general direction: the place where age-old traditions and fresh ideas intersect. It's a crossroads Orli believes classical music needs to visit -- and perpetually revisit. "Different personalities result in completely different things, and certainly our combination of personalities has never been on the stage before," she says of herself and Gil. "He's so outgoing, and such a believer in what he's doing, that it's infectious. It's a different kind of attitude than, say, Heifetz, who used to go on stage and just assume that you were going to like it -- which, in fact, you did! And for [Heifetz's] audience, that was probably the best thing he could've done, but it was a different audience. What happened for a long time was that classical music thought, 'Well, the audiences will just come, even if they have no idea what we're doing here,' and it just doesn't work that way.

"These days, I think, people are simply looking for music that they really like to listen to, and they're not embarrassed at whatever that may end up being. I've always thought that the problem classical music was having with its audiences getting older was really just a lack of exposure. That new generations didn't seem to pick up on it for a while was really the fault of we musicians for not introducing them to it."

Yet still, Orli is a sincere believer in the power of classical music to draw newcomers: "When somebody goes to a classical concert for the first time, they're going to be hooked. Sometimes I get requests for a 'listener-friendly program.' I take that to mean nothing too out there. But, especially as a pianist, I have access to so many classics, so many pieces that are considered part of the standard repertoire that are unbelievable works. So it's not a problem for me to make up a program of pieces that even people who think they've never heard classical music before have probably heard."

To wit, George Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F Major, an unconventional piece of American music that Orli will perform this week as part of the Houston Symphony's "Celebration of American Composers" and in honor of the upcoming centennial of Gershwin's birth (on September 26).

"I've been doing the Concerto in F in a bunch of places this year," she says. "I recently performed it with the Philadelphia Orchestra. It's a great piece, and really underplayed. I actually thought it would be sort of like "Rhapsody in Blue" -- great melodies and that's about it. But as a concerto, it holds together extremely well. It's a very intelligent piece of music. Gershwin was not known for [writing concertos] at all."

Orli adds, "This is my first foray into more pops-oriented stuff. I love listening to that, and I listen to a lot of jazz, but I've never really attempted to play jazz. It's a whole different mindset, a whole different way of thinking, and I've never felt up to it, really. Jazz is partly improvised, which is a completely different concept from what classical musicians do.

"On the other hand, every concert's going to be different, because of the hall, the piano, the orchestra, the audience. There's definitely spontaneity in classical music, but it's somehow different when you need to keep a harmonic chord structure going and improvise on top of that. I've really struggled with that, and so have many classical-musician friends of mine."

So what's the biggest difference between playing Gershwin and, say, Beethoven?

"Gosh, there are so many differences," she says. "In one sense, it's more pure fun, because once you've learned the notes, the Gershwin really kind of plays itself, and you just have to let go and get into the rhythm. It's so rhythm-oriented. On the other hand, you could also say that about Beethoven. But when you're playing Beethoven, that's like the Bible, and you can't really stray from that. In a way, with Gershwin, [straying's] a little more legitimate. I don't mean with notes, but there's more freedom of tempo and dynamics, that kind of thing."

All in all, Orli considers her pops experiment a fling rather than a full-fledged romance. She's fond of Gershwin and his kind, but her heart belongs to Beethoven and his. When asked to name her top-three "desert island" discs -- indispensable recordings for whiling away the time while stranded on some far-flung piece of terra firma -- Shaham singles out "Toscanini and the Brahms symphonies and Karajan and the Mozart Requiem."

"And we've got to get some Bach in there," she continues. "There's Carlos Kleiber's Beethoven's Seventh, which is one of the best recordings of all time, and, on the other hand, there's Gould doing the Goldberg Variations.

"Oh, I don't know," she says with a mock moan. "Now I'm stuck."
Would any popular music make it into her Top Ten? "Probably not. The Top 100, maybe. I'm completely biased in favor of classical music, so I guess I'm in the right profession."

The Houston Symphony's "Celebration of American Composers," including works by Gershwin, Bernstein, Ellington, Copland and others, begins at 8 p.m. August 28 and 29 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion, The Woodlands. (Orli Shaham performs August 28 only.) Tickets are $7$10. For info, call 629-3700.


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