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Passion for piano; Shaham gives her heart to each piece she plays

Orli Shaham, the pianist coming to the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra this weekend, is a busy woman. She has toddler twin boys, plus two teenage stepsons at home. (Shaham is married to David Robertson, the music director of the St. Louis Symphony.) To top it off, she has two new CDs plus another disc in the works, with her violinist brother Gil Shaham.

When The News reaches her, she is hurrying down a busy New York City sidewalk.

"Tell me if you can't hear me," she says.

Her laughing informality bodes well for her concert here. Shaham, 36, is playing the Piano Concerto No. 2 of Camille Saint-Saens.

The concerto is a big, easy-to-love piece that has been a crowd favorite forever. Shaham has a message for classical music newcomers: You will love it.

"One thing that's immediately attractive is, it has a great sense of humor," she enthuses over the blast of a car horn. "You'll see, in the second movement, an interaction between piano and timpani. So charming, so clearly meant to be comic. Another thing is, the great virtuosity that it entails. It's a very, very satisfying piece to play pianistically. It feels good on the hands. Am I talking too fast?

"The third thing is, Saint-Saens was an organist. Most people have had experience with the organ at one time or another -- in church, wherever. The opening of the piece is reflective of that. It starts with the piano by itself, an unusual gesture. He starts with the piano speaking the way an organ might. Those are three easy-to-listen for things."

Shaham's feelings for music run deep. She joined her brother -- they were the children of two Israeli scientists -- at the Juilliard School by the time she was 10.

Gil Shaham, in an interview several years ago with The News, recalled how challenging the school was. "Juilliard was very humbling," he said. "They were all so incredibly accomplished."

Orli, five years younger than he, loved the school. "I was too young to know anything different," she says. "It was normal for me. I loved it. I enjoyed having that connection to Gil as well. We didn't share classes -- he started a year ahead. We shared a lot of acquaintances."

As a teenager she was a member of the Miklos Rozsa Society, devoted to the music of the great Hollywood composer.

Rozsa's Duo for Cello and Piano is on her repertoire list.

She explains: "I used to watch Hitchcock films with my dad. We discovered Bernard Herrmann together, it was a musical revelation. One thing led to another -- Korngold, and the more contemporary film composers."

Her upcoming CD with Gil Shaham is devoted to Hebrew melodies, and one is the John Williams suite from "Schindler's List." "There is no more Jewish music than that."

Shaham has a broad repertoire. Her curiosity about music is wide.

"I would love to have dinner with Brahms," she says. "Just to be near someone who was capable of such sensitivity, love and passion."

She then gives The Buffalo News a scoop: She is working on a disc of Brahms chamber music.

Other pieces, too, call to her. One, in particular. "I do have a Mount Everest, the Brahms B Flat Piano Concerto," she admits. "For me, it's one of the greatest works of music, of any form, of any genre. I shied away from it for a very long time because I have small hands. I was worried to find out that my hands are too small to do it."

Now, there may be hope. "My technique is such that I have ways of compensating."

Meanwhile, Shaham is a pianist very much in the moment. Whatever piece she is playing has her heart.

"People always ask me if I have a favorite composer," she reflects. "I can't have a favorite composer. It's like having a favorite child. Every piece, every composer is your favorite.

"Next week, no question that the Saint-Saens concerto will be my favorite. It's one of my favorite pieces. That's what's great about what we do. The literature is so vast and so wonderful.

"In the end I play for the composer, trying to make their dream come alive. And I play for the 11- and 12-year-old music nerd I once was, sitting in the audience, who might be inspired by that performance."

This weekend's concert will be conducted by Tan Lihua, music director and principal conductor of the Beijing Symphony Orchestra and chairman of the Beijing Musicians' Association. Besides the Saint-Saens concerto, the program includes the Symphony No. 2 by the Russian Romantic composer Alexander Borodin.




Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, Classics Concert featuring guest conductor Tan Lihua and pianist Orli Shaham    

WHEN: 8 p.m. Saturday and 2:30 p.m. Sunday    

WHERE: Kleinhans Music Hall    

TICKETS: $25-$72    

INFO: 885-5000