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Orli Shaham: Immersed in Music

March 15, 2020

Pianist Orli Shaham likes to be busy. In addition to performing as a soloist with major symphony orchestras worldwide, the highly acclaimed Israeli-born virtuoso, deemed “brilliant” by The New York Times,” is juggling multiple projects, many of which are for youth.

In addition to teaching, Shaham is continually creating or contributing to new programs around music. “Orli Shaham’s Bach Yard” (formerly “Baby Got Bach”), an interactive concert series for children, age pre-K to early elementary is celebrating its 10th year. The program introduces them to music through live performances that include storytelling and other hands-on activities. Another ongoing endeavor for Shaham is with NPR’s From the Top, a nationally broadcast radio show that features performances and conversations with teens. Along with guest hosting, she was recently named as a creative, which will involve her more deeply.

Her newest program is called Beyond the Fingers, a web series that teaches people who play the piano how to keep their hands and bodies healthy through mobility exercises and stretching. She is also the artistic director for the Pacific Symphony’s chamber music series in Costa Mesa, California. And there is much, much more. She’s busy.

The wife of the highly lauded American conductor David Robertson and sister of world-renowned violinist Gil Shaham, she came from Israel with her family to New York when she was just 7, and has made it her home.

I chatted recently with Shaham by telephone from her home in New York. Her enthusiasm for music, and upbeat personality were strongly apparent, as she told me about her lifelong passion for music.

Shaham was scheduled to perform Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with the Marin Symphony on March 21. Unfortunately, the concert has been canceled due to precautions concerning the coronavirus.

Your family moved to New York when you were quite young. What was that like?

I’m an immigrant. I came from Israel to America when I was about seven. And although my parents were very academic, they weren’t wealthy people, but very cultured, sophisticated, and intelligent, and so I never felt like I had a typical immigrant experience. The American Constitution was a whole new thing for me, and I was fascinated by it and by constitutional law.

Why did your family decide to leave Israel?

My dad, an astrophysics professor, got a one-year position at Columbia University. And at the end of that year, they offered him a second year. It’s a very emotional thing to leave Israel, but by the end of the second year, the whole family was settled and quite happy in New York. Both Gil and I were at the Juilliard Pre-College, which was quite an opportunity.

Is it difficult adjusting to a new piano every time you perform?

When you come to a piano that inspires you, that is a miracle. It allows you to fulfill your imagination about what you’ve been working towards, and that feeling is unparalleled. I wish I could bring my own technician with me who could turn any piano into what I like. I’m actually seriously considering going to that model sometime soon.

You are doing so many things — performing, teaching, writing articles, hosting radio shows, and more. What drives you to do so much?

I am just fascinated by music, and I get interested in ideas very easily. I get swept up by the full potential of what an idea might be, and I run with it. There’s something to be said for being at a certain point in your life where I understand much better than I did in my 20s, what my strengths are and what I can really offer. And it’s great to be in a place where I can put that to good use, not only for myself, but also for the institutions that I’m involved with.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of being married to a professional musician?

The biggest advantage is that your partner is your best sounding board for ideas, and just for navigating the landscape. It’s invaluable to have somebody you fully trust, who also happens to be an expert in your field.

The major disadvantage is that both of you have a job that requires traveling away from home. That part can be really difficult. But ever since we’ve had kids, whenever we’re not travelling for our own concerts, we’re home.

How often do you perform with your brother Gil?

Maybe just once a season. He also has a young family, so in the past few years there have been a couple of seasons that have gone by where we didn’t play at all. And we both really miss it, because it’s really our favorite thing to do, and has been since we were very young. For us, performing together is like that secret but guilty pleasure, because when we were supposed to practice, instead, we would just come into the room and sight-read sonatas together.

There are so many professional pianists out there performing. What do you think is your special gift?

Something that people often say to me is that I am endlessly enthusiastic. That aspect is really important to me, and I love hearing it.

Lily O'Brien is a freelance writer and editor with a passion for the performing arts. She has written feature articles and previews for a variety of publications including Downbeat, JazzTimes, Marin Arts & Culture, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Marin Independent Journal, and Strings magazine. She is a singer who has performed professionally in a variety of genres, and an avid world traveler and bicyclist.