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Times Will Tell

Podcast: IPO’s Lahav Shani compares orchestra conducting to film direction

The 33-year-old Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conductor speaks to ToI ahead of a nine-city US tour in November, the symphony’s first since the pandemic. NEW: Full transcript

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conductor Lahav Shani speaks with Jessica Steinberg for this week’s Times Will Tell episode, ahead of the orchestra’s nine-city tour in the United States, beginning in November.

The tour is the IPO’s first since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, and Shani’s first as its artistic director.

Shani, 33, is a world-renowned pianist, double bass player and conductor, known for his skills as a musician and conductor — as well as for the young age at which he’s accomplished so much.

The rising star also became the chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in September 2018 and the principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra.

Shani made his first appearance as a soloist with the IPO in 2007. Six years later, he conducted the debut concert of the Philharmonic’s 2013 season. (That same year, he won the coveted top prize at Germany’s Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition.)

He follows in the giant footsteps of the legendary Zubin Mehta, who led the IPO for nearly 50 years.

Shani speaks about the challenges of following Mehta, about conducting his friends and colleagues, and the wonders of seeking new sounds and music.

The following transcript has been very lightly edited.

The Times of Israel: Tell us a little bit about this nine-city tour in the US, which is your first with the IPO since you just took over as musical director very recently. 

Lahav Shani: Well, this is going to be the orchestra’s very first tour since the pandemic, and that’s a very serious thing for the Israel Philharmonic, because it’s an orchestra that used to tour almost all the time relative to other orchestras. I toured with the orchestra before, but not as a conductor, as a pianist, or as a double bass player. On our tour to the Far East in 2010 is when I really got to know the orchestra in Japan, in South Korea, etc. That was also the very first time that I got the opportunity to conduct the orchestra.

Wait, how old were you in 2010?

I must have been 21. I went there as a double bass player and as a pianist soloist, and Zubin Mehta was still the music director, he just offered me to conduct the orchestra I had never heard. I had just started to study in Berlin the year before, and the musicians really wanted to see if I could really conduct. And so that was really the real beginning of my relationship with the orchestra as a conductor. So now, finally, to go on a real tour and be the music director, and in the US, in fantastic halls, that’s a really special moment.

You are the official conductor of the Israel Philharmonic. You’re also the chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic. How does that actually work in real-time? 

Well, conductors usually hardly see their own home, unfortunately, that’s one of the biggest sacrifices one has to make in this profession. There are 52 weeks in a year, about nine of them I do in Israel, about eight or nine in Rotterdam, and a couple of weeks more with each orchestra on tour.

And then the rest of the time, there’s a little bit of piano playing.

You still have your solo career, you still perform as a pianist, right?

I play and conduct. I play chamber music with musicians from my orchestras and with soloists, at festivals, And I also like to enjoy my free time every once in a while. But then I go to Israel, now, for example, to rehearse with the orchestra for concerts in Israel. And then after we’ve done all the concerts, then we would have a few days to just refresh the repertoire that we’re going to take on tour. Because we have played this repertoire before, so it’s not like starting from scratch for us.

So there’s a lot of discussion, of course, about your youth, your age, you’re in your early thirties if I’m not mistaken.

Yes.

You’re the first IPO musical director to be born in Israel, and dealing with this challenge of aging audiences. What does it mean in terms of the Philharmonic repertoire?

Everything has to be looked at in the right context. First of all, we’re just stepping out of these two years of pandemic everywhere in the world, during which classical music suffered. Taking that into account, the Israel Philharmonic is really blessed with one of the best audiences in the world, and we’re already selling out concerts again in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa. This is really a blessing because it’s not the same situation everywhere in the world. And our public is really loyal, there are great music lovers in Israel. The orchestra sometimes repeats the same program five, six, even seven times so that our entire Israeli public can hear the concert.

So you’re repeating it so that everyone can make it to the same repertoire.

Exactly. So about three times in Tel Aviv, two times in Haifa, one time in Jerusalem. That’s just to play for all of our subscribers. The problem of the age of the audience has been an ongoing thing for decades. Classical music was always something that the younger people didn’t find interesting. The important thing for me is that anyone who has any curiosity for music shouldn’t be afraid to come and try it out and not to think that if they don’t know enough, then they cannot enjoy it. The idea is that you first need the curiosity, and the music will just take you over if you’re really interested, if you allow it, and if you become an active listener.

You took over for Zubin Mehta, and I can’t imagine what that’s like, to follow in those footsteps. 

First of all, it’s a big honor, no question. Zubin Mehta is, I would say, one of my mentors, one of the musicians that really inspired me to become a conductor in the first place. I’ve played with him many times in the orchestra, as a double bass player. I played with him as a soloist pianist. I went on tours with him, with the orchestra. So there’s a real feeling of being almost colleagues, even when I was much younger. My relationship with the orchestra has been shaped for many years. So it’s not like I just came out of nowhere. They kept inviting me back every year as a conductor, and as a pianist.

They liked you?

Yeah, they liked me. I liked them. Many of the young musicians in the orchestra are people my age, these are people that I know since childhood. When they named me musical director, it was not the beginning of a relationship, but rather a continuation. It actually feels very natural and very much the right thing to do, and very comfortable. We’re very direct with each other, as Israelis are in general.

I often get the question, how do you deal with people older than you? Or how do you deal with people who are your friends, and you are supposed to lead them and tell them what to do. This relationship is so clear and direct and natural that I feel very comfortable with all of the musicians, and I feel that they’re happy to go together with me and explore everything.

What about your multifaceted career? You’re a conductor, a solo pianist, a double bass player. What is that like to be both a performer, a musician, and the one who is guiding the whole show?

Well, at the end, it’s the same thing. Making music is making music. However, the big difference between conducting and playing an instrument yourself is that when you conduct, you’re always dependent on other people. You have your musical ideas, but you can move your hands as fast as you want or as loud as you can. It doesn’t make any sound. It’s other people that have to like what you do. They have to agree with you. You have to convince them, and then they might play as you think they should. And when you play the piano, it’s just you and the keyboard, and that’s it. And if you’re in good shape and if you practice, there’s a good chance that you might be able to make the sound that you imagine. So also, it’s very healthy, in a way, as a conductor, to keep this physical contact with the sound, not to forget what it means for the musicians to make those sounds. It’s not just that they do what you want and they do what you tell them. They are the ones who express themselves, and they’re the ones who make the sound and try their best.

So this is really a collaboration in the end. But if you really play an instrument often, then you don’t lose this feeling and you don’t lose the feeling of what it means to make sound for other people.

I like that explanation. And then, given the fact that you have two different orchestras that you work so closely, what is that like in terms of what you produce? Is there ever any overlap?

Well, any piece that I take for any orchestra, not just for my orchestra, but also when I’m a guest conductor, it is going to be different than other orchestras. And the rehearsal process, a lot of it is improvisation. You have an ideal way, let’s say, in your mind, and the orchestra does something that may be slightly different than your idea, even though they see your body language and you’re clear [about your intent], they have their tendencies or their habits, or they want to do something else. And then as a leader, you need to ask yourself the question often, should I just take what I have right now? Is it good enough? Is it better than what I thought? Or is it very far away?

You try to stay as objective as you can, also as a conductor, because if you tell the musician in the orchestra, can you play it like that and not another way, there is a very good chance they will ask, why is your way better than mine? And it’s a very fair question. So you must be able to convince the musicians why they should play one way or another. Or if you like what they do, also just say, actually I like that better than my idea.

Think about film directors, for example. Most likely, they have a very clear vision, a very clear image of the entire film in their mind. But then they’re facing these world-class actors. And the actors, sometimes they have their way to say the lines. So there must be very good communication between the director and the actor so that the actor is able to say things as he understands or as she understands, with their subtext.

And if the director feels this could work well, then they should let it happen. And if not, they need to be able to guide them in another way. It’s exactly the same kind of communication.

I like that metaphor. Okay, last question. You obviously have many new beginnings happening in the next month and year, but what are one or two things that you’re looking to bring to your plate this year?

Well, repertoire is something that we determine one, two, sometimes three years before we actually play it. Sometimes it’s a bit annoying because if there is something you really, really want to perform but maybe in three years, you won’t like it anymore. Who knows?

I want to continue and deepen the relationship with my orchestras. It’s true that this relationship goes years back, but as music director, this is just going to be my second official season because my first season had to be delayed during the pandemic. So it’s really about deepening these relationships and keep exploring different territories of the repertoire together and keep discovering our sound.

The combination of a conductor and an orchestra needs to bring something unique, something that is different, and this is something that is to be discovered. It’s not that I can imagine to the last note in my mind and the orchestra has to do exactly what I imagine. This is a process that we need to really understand each other better so that we’re completely free to express the music and focus on the music itself and stay in the flow and in communicating it with the public.

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