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Surprise! Violinist Shaham gets Avery Fisher Prize

Gil Shaham
Associated Press

The last time they shared a Lincoln Center stage, violinist Gil Shaham wielded the big smiles as Gustavo Dudamel made his conducting debut with the New York Philharmonic. Thursday night, it was Dudamel's turn.

At the end of Shaham's nationally televised performance on PBS's "Live From Lincoln Center," Dudamel suddenly appeared in the audience and greeted Shaham as the violinist walked toward an exit.

"Stop!" Dudamel called out. "My friend. Nice to see you. I have the honor to tell you that you have won the Avery Fisher Prize for 2008."

The 37-year-old Shaham took two steps back to catch his breath.

The prize, named for the man who invented the transistorized amplifier and helped fund the landmark West Side arts complex, is worth $75,000. It was established in 1974 and has been awarded to 19 other musicians, including Yo-Yo Ma, Midori, Emanuel Ax and most recently Joshua Bell.

"The prize is for people who have really reached the pinnacle of their career," Nathan Leventhal, chairman of the Avery Fisher Artist Program, told the 150-member audience after the TV cameras went off the air.

"Oh my God," Shaham said.

The violinist had just finished performing works by the Spanish composer Pablo de Sarasate, who died 100 years ago this fall, when the 27-year-old Dudamel made the surprise announcement at Lincoln Center's Kaplan Penthouse.

During the Venezuelan conductor's debut last November with the New York Philharmonic, Shaham maintained a huge grin while playing the Dvorak Violin Concerto as his friend led the musicians through a triumphant performance.

Shaham was born in Champaign-Urbana, Ill., to Israeli parents. When he was 7, he and his family moved to Israel, where he studied violin. Three years later, he began studying at The Juilliard School and at the Aspen Music School in Colorado.

His career got a big boost in 1989, when as a late substitute soloist for an indisposed Itzhak Perlman, the then-high school junior turned in highly praised performances with the London Symphony Orchestra and conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

The following year, Shaham won an Avery Fisher Career Grant, an award to help young musicians start their careers.

"My father loved surprises," Nancy Fisher said. "He loved calling musicians to tell them they had won."

"Twenty years ago he called me," Shaham said. "I'm just dumbfounded."