University orchestras are not a regular feature of Gil Shaham's itinerary.
The acclaimed violinist usually steps in front of household-name orchestras: the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, Chicago Symphony or Jerusalem Symphony, with which he made his solo debut at age 10.
But the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra is indeed the classical music superstar's date on Valentine's night.
“I was thrilled to be invited,” Shaham, 37, said from his home in New York on Tuesday night, shortly after getting his two kids to bed. “I was born in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., so there's this thing about the Midwest and a university atmosphere that I always love.”
Shaham's UK gig works in with some of his grander plans at the moment, namely attacking violin concertos written about 1930.
“When you look at the genre of violin concertos, there's kind of a spike around the 1930s,” Shaham says. “If I were to look back at my favorite concertos, or even if I was to take my personal preferences out of the picture and just opened a music textbook and looked under famous composers or influential music, there's Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev and Béla Bartók and Alban Berg and Arnold Schönberg and Paul Hindemith and Samuel Barber and William Walton and Benjamin Britten and many more. And all wrote violin concertos between 1931 and 1939.”
Shaham's plan is to focus on those works during the next few years, playing them in concert and recording them, something he can easily decide to do as the owner of his own record label, Canary Classics.
Shaham says this is his first season tackling these works as a whole, and Saturday night, he plays the Stravinsky Violin Concerto in D with UK.
“It's a very happy Stravinsky,” Shaham says. “It dances, like all his music dances. There's something very optimistic about it. It's a piece that always makes me smile.”
It also is a piece that will let the UK orchestra truly play with Shaham, rather than simply yield the spotlight when his passages show up.
Shaham says the piece is “in many ways a concerto grosso,” meaning an orchestral work in which a number of musicians have solo spots. “There's solos for everybody. At one point, I play a duet with the concertmaster, and there's solo bassoon, there's solo cello, there's solo tuba, there are a lot of different solos throughout the piece, and duets. It's a tricky piece to put together.”
Shaham looks forward to hearing the UK orchestra tackle the Stravinsky, because most of the musicians will be playing it for the first time.
That's still an experience with which Shaham can identify, even in his storied career. Just Monday, he was part of a trio tackling for the first time Johannes Brahms' posthumously published Piano Trio in A Major.
“Something there was brand-new for us,” he says of the ensemble, which included his sister Orli Shaham, a world-renowned pianist. “It was also new for the audience. We were talking about how that is a different type of excitement from when you play something that everybody has known for a long time.
“It's like the first time you played the Stravinsky concerto, for me, or the first time Orli played the Gershwin piano concerto. It's a very exciting thing.”
Getting to play with Shaham will just be an added shot of excitement for the UK players.