Think of Paganini, who, like Robert Johnson, was rumored to have sold his soul to the devil. Think of "Intermezzo," the movie about the brooding Swedish violin virtuoso who entrances the young Ingrid Bergman.
Think of any superstar violinist, and you imagine an otherworldly being, cloaked in glamour, mystery and romance.
And no one fits the bill more than Gil Shaham, who will be joining the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra for a one-night-only performance at 8 p.m. Saturday in Kleinhans Music Hall. A star since before he was 20, Shaham touched off the wave of glittering young concert violinists that now includes Joshua Bell and Midori. In black tie and tails, Stradivarius in hand, he is the epitome of artistic accomplishment.
Talk to Shaham, though, and your whole perception changes.
From the moment he picks up the phone one afternoon, sounding frazzled, Shaham acts like your neighbor, or the guy who sits at the next desk over.
"I'm really sorry," he says, sheepishly. "Can we reschedule the interview? I've got baby-sitting problems." He giggles, apologetically. Shaham is married to the superb violinist Adele Anthony, who has given several Western New York performances. They have a young son named Elijah.
After a quick conference, the call is rescheduled for the more user-friendly hour of 10 p.m.
By then, we're even farther from the world of Paganini and "Intermezzo." It's late. The reporter is in pajamas. And Shaham sounds much calmer.
He talks easily. He giggles a lot. Call him Mr. Shaham, and he responds quickly: "Call me Gil."
It's as if stardom happened to him by accident. In a way, of course, it did.
Berlioz and Jim Nabors
Shaham has told reporters over and over, as if talent had nothing to do with it, that he's lucky.
"I just feel so lucky with my life," he says. "I think music's a totally crazy field, you know -- you never know what the future will bring, what kind of life. I'm doing what I love. Music is basically a hobby to me."
As he talks about his life, though, it's clear that he was always on the right path.
His parents, who raised him in Israel, were scientists, but they were also record collectors.
"They were big music lovers," Shaham says. "They had a big record collection, and they used to take me to concerts."
What music does he remember from childhood? "We had Berlioz' 'Symphony Fantastique,' " Shaham says. "And the Jim Nabors collection." He giggles.
He laughs some more as he confides how it happened that he began violin lessons.
"I was jealous of my brother's piano studies," he says.
"He's the smart brother," he adds, in a charming aside. "He's a scientist. But he still plays the piano. He'll play, like, the Brahms Piano Quintet. I can't tell you the first thing about biology or whatever it is that he does."
Shaham's big break came when he was 18. He was summoned to London to perform the Sibelius Violin Concerto when Itzhak Perlman, who was supposed to have played the concerto, couldn't make the gig at the last minute.
The concert brought him to the world's attention. Discussing it, though, Shaham is always modest -- funny, even. "I'm sure they called 500 violinists before they thought of me," he told one interviewer.
Now, looking back, he giggles at the absurdity of it all. "I was in high school. I got this call, and I was called down to the principal's office," he says. "Thankfully, it was the London Symphony Orchestra calling."
He flew to London on the Concorde. "That was the highlight," he says. "I'll never forget the pilot announcing, 'We're now Mach 2.' You look out the window and see the curvature of the earth. You fly pretty high, 55,000 feet. That was cool.
"And I really didn't have time to get nervous -- until five or 10 minutes before the concert. And then I was really a little bit panicky. I realized there were people out there who thought Itzhak Perlman was going to come out."
'Gil, it's too late now'
Conducting Shaham's big concert in London was Michael Tilson Thomas, who about a decade before that had been the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra. As they stood in the wings, Thomas reassured the high schooler in his typically wacky way.
"I turned to Michael and said, 'I'm really nervous right now,' " Shaham recalls. "He said, 'Well, you know, Gil, it's too late now.'
"Then he said: 'Just go out there and have a great time.' "
The homey, common-sense advice stuck.
"There was a time -- I guess when I was 20 or so -- when I'd get nervous," Shaham admits. "I think it's sort of natural. But music is something that everyone comes to the concert to enjoy. Memory slips, other problems -- I actually think it's kind of fun when that stuff happens."
Fun? "Well, music's really something to be enjoyed," Shaham says, laughing. "It's not like we're performing surgery."
He adds: "I just sort of stopped taking myself so seriously, you know? Music -- I think this is true for you, too -- it's a hobby. It's the most fulfilling thing I can imagine doing. I'm lucky to have it as my job."
Shaham feels fortunate that his overnight success allowed him to skip, for the most part, the agony of big competitions. While they offer opportunity, he points out, they have been known to take their toll on musicians, including his wife.
"I remember with Adele, when she was in competitions, she was always a finalist, and she always won prizes. Then she went to do the Nielsen Competition. She said, 'I hate them. I never want to do competitions again. I'm never practicing again.' " He laughs. "She came back with a good prize."
Competitions, Shaham explains, have a different vibe from concerts. "It's so difficult," he says. "You play for an audience that's not there to enjoy it. They're out to get you, to criticize you. It's kind of a hard thing for a musician."
Pressure and practice
Shaham, who now holds dual Israeli and U.S. citizenships, attended Juilliard, where he studied with the famous Dorothy DeLay.
"When I came to New York, I was 11. It was a big adjustment for me. I didn't really speak English," he says. "Jerusalem is really a small town, compared to New York, and New York was intimidating, and I sort of countered that by becoming pretty serious about the violin.
"I spent five or six hours a day practicing. And Juilliard was very humbling. They were all so incredibly accomplished. It's like here I thought I was this hotshot, and these guys were way ahead of me. So there was some kind of competition, but I think it was a healthy thing. I think it's very healthy to be in that environment."
Does he still practice five or six hours a day? "Oh, I could never do that again," Shaham gasps, laughing. "There were a few years when I couldn't bring myself to practice five or six minutes."
These days, flying to play 50 concerts a year, he's lucky if he finds the time to practice two or three hours a day.
"Learning new repertoire is much slower now for me than when I was in school," he admits. "I'll probably learn two or three new big pieces every year. But that's about it."
When he appears with the BPO, Shaham will be playing the colorful violin concerto by Erich Wolfgang Korngold, known for his sweeping movie scores from the 1930s and '40s, including "The Prince and the Pauper" and the Errol Flynn movie "Captain Blood."
"He was the king of Hollywood. He defined what cinematic music was. The Korngold sound was the Hollywood sound," he marvels.
Korngold's violin concerto contains themes from his movie scores. The Viennese-born composer, he reflects, was rightfully proud of his film music.
"He saw himself as a pioneer of a new art form. I don't think he ever thought of it as cheapening or selling out. His melodies were so natural, so tuneful, that you don't realize they're incredibly complicated, innovative techniques."
What will be running through Shaham's head as he performs the Korngold concerto? To hear him talk, it seems that he'll be feeling joy just from communicating with the crowd.
"When you look out and see the audience, you see that you're affecting someone, it's an amazing feeling," he says. "It's incredible. When I look out at the audience, and people seem interested and seem to be enjoying it and loving it. . . . Well, that's why I do it."