Striking a cord

With a new opera to his name and a frantic schedule of some 340 concerts a year, Gil Shohat is spreading his wings.

With a new opera to his name and a frantic schedule of some 340 concerts a year,conductor Gil Shohat is spreading his wings (photo credit: COURTESY GIL SHOHAT)
With a new opera to his name and a frantic schedule of some 340 concerts a year,conductor Gil Shohat is spreading his wings
(photo credit: COURTESY GIL SHOHAT)
 Gil Shohat, one of Israel’s leading figures in classical music, must have cut some sort of Faustian deal to stretch the time available to him to more than the 24-hours a day allotted to mere mortals.
How else can one explain his frantic schedule of some 340 concerts a year, sometimes two a day, as both a pianist and conductor? He has also written more than 250 original compositions, including nine largescale symphonies, five operas, 15 concertos, and various other pieces all catalogued by the Harvard University Library when he turned 34 (he is now 41). Then there are his popular lecture series and his position as musical director to many institutions.
“All my life I was like this, chasing after something that is more than humanly possible,” he tells The Jerusalem Report.
In a country where the classical music scene is one of the most vibrant in the world, the peripatetic Shohat is a classical music missionary spreading the message to the masses.
A case in point.
He is in his white Mercedes S Class entering the parking lot in Jaffa reserved for tenants only and he is in a hurry. Two violinists, a cellist, plus viola and contrabass players are waiting for him in an alley outside the door to his rehearsal studio. The day is going to be a busy one with another rehearsal in the afternoon at the New Israeli Opera building in Tel Aviv; at night he will conduct a major concert in Herzliya for 13,000 people with former president Shimon Peres as the guest of honor. His conductor’s baton is on the front seat.
But, the day hadn’t started out so well. First, the music notes he needed for the concert were not ready when he arrived at his office (also in Jaffa) and he had to look for them himself.
Then his car wouldn’t start.
After six or seven tries during which he remained calm, the engine finally came to life with a sound that to him must have equaled the E-flat opening major chord of Beethoven’s “Eroica.” And, now, as he arrives at the studio parking lot, it’s full and a small van that obviously does not belong is taking up a valuable spot. Two men – electricians, perhaps plumbers – are unloading supplies from the back.
As he approaches to ask them to move the van, one of them recognizes him and a big smile breaks out on his face. “I know you,” he says with a tone of conviviality Israelis employ even toward complete strangers. “I saw you in a concert this summer. I really enjoyed it.”
Shohat finds another spot to squeeze his car into.
“That is my goal – to bring classical music to all kinds of people, not just the elite,” Shohat says while crossing the stone-covered square in Jaffa, walking briskly to his studio, which is hidden down 47 steps in a narrow alley.
The location immediately makes one wonder how the movers managed to defy the laws of physics and navigate impossible angles to manipulate Shohat’s concert grand Kawai piano into such a tight squeeze. But there it stands – black and shiny and taking up half the space in the antique-filled studio.
Shohat likes to collect mismatched fine bone china, English silver tea sets, bronze sculptures, old clocks, and oil paintings with each piece finding its own niche. The fulcrum of his life is in Jaffa with his studio, his office and his apartment forming an isosceles triangle on the map.
“I NEED something authentic, and Jaffa is authentic,” he says. “I also like the variety of cultures – Christians, Muslims and Jews, foreign workers. I love that.”
The musicians pile in, Shohat puts out the boureka pastries he brought, and the rehearsal begins.
Five string instruments and a grand piano sound like an entire orchestra in the small space. The divine music reverberates against the high-arched ceilings and spills outside through the thick 500-year-old Ottoman walls tempting tourists walking down the alley steps to pause a while.
Shohat’s musical career began at age four when his kindergarten teacher told his parents he needed to study music. Lessons didn’t start until he was seven and he had to prove his commitment to music by walking to the conservatory every day for 18 months to practice before his parents bought him a piano.
His first composition was a Fantasia for solo piano, written when he was 12.
At age 10, his Warsaw-born grandmother asked what he wanted for his birthday and the answer was a recording of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto. By mistake, she bought the composer’s second symphony, which was a transforming experience and a revelation for Shohat.
“It was just amazing. It opened a whole new window of Russian music for me. My Polish grandmother had a big influence on me. She was a Holocaust survivor and she told me all the stories. They were like operatic drama with much emotion.”
Years later, Shohat would write an opera, “The Child Dreams”, which tells the story of Jewish refugees through the eyes of a child.
Commissioned by the Israeli Opera for its 25th anniversary season, the opera is based on a play by the same name written by Hanoch Levin. It premiered in January 2010 with an all-Israeli cast.
Shohat’s grandparents were refugees after the war and his mother, Tzipi Shohat, longtime theater critic for the Haaretz daily, was born in Vienna. Shohat’s father, an educator, was born in Iraq.
Shohat came to local and international attention with his first opera “Alpha and Omega”, a parable of the Adam and Eve story that premiered in Israel, in 2001. “‘Alpha and Omega’ is perhaps the Israeli ‘Tristan and Isolde,’” the Haaretz music critic raved. The Maariv critic wrote, “Gil Shohat’s impressive music undoubtedly constitutes a significant breakthrough on Israel’s cultural scene. This opera is a glorious Israeli triumph!” “That was the opera that really changed the whole conception of Israeli concert music,” Shohat says, catching a quick lunch in the employee’s cafeteria at the Israeli Opera after his second rehearsal of the day, and before he heads out to Herzliya for the concert. It’s 4 p.m. and he still hadn’t eaten a thing.
“It was the first time in the history of Israel that 30,000 people bought tickets to hear an Israeli piece and it revolutionized the entire concept of Israeli music. It was an unforgettable event. I was sure it would conquer the world and it didn’t.
“One could say that I was wrong. If I invested one millionth of the energy I invested in “Alpha and Omega” to write a three-minute song for Beyoncé, I would be far more famous and rich.
But others would say that “Alpha and Omega” is a genius opera and it hasn’t conquered the world yet, but it will. I write out of the belief that I’m leaving behind something substantial, important, influential and beautiful, and that is the reason that I invest in each piece I would say a million more times what I need to or what I’m asked to,” he relates.
At 41, Shohat is no longer a kind but still has plenty of wunder in him. This month, the world premiere of his latest work “Dharma” will be held in honor of the inauguration of a new concert hall in Rehovot.
The piece combines contemporary genres in dialogue with various musical traditions.
Written for three singers, a string ensemble, percussion, piano, mandolin, and harp, the music is set to texts that range from ancient Mesopotamian chants and Chinese poetry to verses from the Bible, Koran and New Testament accompanied by video art. Shohat worked on the composition for two years, writing it the old-fashioned way, with one of the fountain pens in his collection, eschewing computer programs.
“I’m sure it will have great impact,” says a classical music critic for one of Israel’s major daily newspapers who had not yet heard the piece. “No doubt he is one of the most prominent and gifted musicians in Israel.”
All the major Israeli orchestras have performed Shohat’s compositions, while the Berlin Symphony, the Rome Opera Orchestra, the Pomereggio Musicale Orchestra of Milan, and others have done so abroad. His music is unabashedly neo-romantic, lyrical and causes some music critics to wax poetic.
“Shohat’s style is based on three things: the romantic melody, which rolls like a great sea; the grasp of the work’s overall structure; and the brilliant orchestration,” Hanoch Ron wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth in 2000. “Shohat is a genuine romantic who feels no shame at displaying emotion.”
To say that Shohat doesn’t hide his aversion to avant-garde music would be an understatement. This, despite the fact that many of his teachers were avant-garde musicians. He is asked if he thinks the atonal music could be compared to garbage on the floor passing for art in a modern art museum.
“THE GARBAGE on t he floor is much more communicative and more beautiful than a typical avant-garde piece,” he replies. “When you look at the garbage on the floor, you try to understand why it’s considered art but you’re not appalled to your bone marrow and get crazy and have a nervous breakdown from these horrendous, crazy, deranged harmonies of these avant-garde pieces.”
The contemporary music camp slings the mud right back.
“Gil Shohat is not a composer. He emulates Ravel, Debussy and Puccini,” writes Arie Shapira, a professor in the music department of Haifa University in an email response to this reporter’s question.
Dan Yuhas, founder and director of Israel Contemporary Players and former head of the Israeli Composers League, meanwhile, intimates that Shohat has not gotten with the program of new trends in music. “I think Gil is a very talented musician and composer, and he has chosen a path that differs from my way of writing,” he says in a telephone interview. “It’s a big world and everyone has a place in it. We are in a very plural world regarding composition and there are new things. Gil does not take part in the new developments – he chooses his way differently. If you are a contemporary artist, you have to express your time,” Yuhas says.
Unlike international musicians who focus on one instrument, Shohat spreads himself thin.
“I’m not a typical example of somebody who specialized in one instrument or profession. I do everything and combine everything, including world music and jazz, and that already makes me different,” he says. “I can’t be categorized easily. We live in a world that needs simple categorization. My pieces are played and I am invited to perform abroad but there is a difference between being a successful international Israeli musician and being just an international musician. The border between the two is the border that I need to cross.”
Despite the difficulties, he believes working and creating in Israel has some advantages. “I have thought about going abroad many times to perform with better orchestras in bigger halls for large audiences.
On the other hand, many classical musicians spend 80 percent of their time on planes.
Here everything is within a two-hour drive.
I like the musicians. They are my friends. In Europe, a conductor is very much alone. He’s not friendly with the musicians. In Israel there is no distance, it’s all one big village.”
It’s getting late and, after finishing his lunch, Shohat leaves for Herzliya to arrive in plenty of time before the concert. He leaves his conductor’s baton behind to be packed for the next day’s performance in Nahariya, but he has a spare in his car. He’s already dressed with black pants and a black shirt with gold cufflinks; he has a jacket in the trunk. He continues the interview with The Report on the way.
It is difficult for a modern classical music composer to compete with the greats and be played in concert halls around the world but Shohat still has dreams for his compositions.
“I would like my pieces to be performed on every big stage and by every opera company in the world. I would like my pieces to spread wings and make me proud. To be honest, I’m in love with every piece I have finished. I listen to my pieces when I’m in the car.”
But in recent years he spends less of his time composing.
“When I saw the Harvard Library catalogue of my work, I felt that I wrote a lot and that I don’t need to write anymore.
I said what I needed to say and it was enough for a lifetime. The question is what the world wants from you, not what you give. A reporter for The New York Times wanted to write an article about me but when my publicist sent him a list of all my compositions he said I must be a fraud – that it is impossible someone my age had written so much. The world was saying, ‘You’re too much for us, just relax.’” Gil Shohat relax? Not likely.