A key player

Lahav Shani performs at the Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival

Lahav Shani  (photo credit: MARCO BORGGREVE)
Lahav Shani
(photo credit: MARCO BORGGREVE)
The Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival takes place between August 31 and September 9, for the 20th time now, which even its founder and artistic director Elena Bashkirova finds hard to believe.
Relating to both the program and the participants, Bashkirova describes the upcoming event as “a festival of reminiscence and renewal.” The program features “flagship pieces and smaller gems... together with some of the works we commissioned over the years. And, in our time-honored tradition, we have commissioned two new works for the festival by Israeli composer Omri Abram and German Sven-Ingo Koch,” she says.
The roster of performers includes pianists Martha Argerich, Efim Bronfman and Kirill Gerstein, flutists Emmanuel Pahud and Guy Eshed, cellists Kirill Zlotnikov and Alexander Kniazev, clarinet players Danny Erdman and Pascal Moraguez, violinists Guy Braunstein and Kolja Blacher, to name but a few.
The career of 28-year-old Israeli conductor/musician Lahav Shani catapulted recently, as he was appointed principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra, and next season he will be the chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. He will perform at this year’s festival as a pianist, while at his first festival appearance he played the double bass.
In a phone interview from his hotel in Amsterdam, the day after he performed Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” which he conducted from the keyboard, Shani talks about his musical life.
Shani, who first touched the keyboard as early as he started walking, admits that he was attracted to the double bass by curiosity.
“At the time, I was a student at the Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts, and I wanted to join the school orchestra,” he says.
Advancing quickly, he was admitted not only to the students’ ensemble but also performed with most of the Israeli orchestras as a double bass player and pianist.
“This occasionally brought me to conducting,” he recalls.
“I got exposed to orchestral repertoire, realized how it felt to make music and share feelings with many other people on stage.
I enjoyed playing double bass, which in a sense holds the entire orchestra on its shoulders by its low sound. I felt I could have spent my entire life being a musician in an orchestra, but I couldn’t help thinking of how I should conduct the same piece,” he recounts.
Zubin Mehta, the chief conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, supported Shani’s idea of studying conducting abroad. As a result, Shani graduated from the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin as a conductor and pianist.
“I actually just wanted to try, to find out whether I was able to do more,” he says.
Shani says that a conductor has to do a double job simultaneously: “You have to prepare the orchestra for the next phrase; but, at the same time, you need to listen to what is happening in the orchestra and to react. You cannot just come to a rehearsal with your homework and tell the musicians what to do; it’s very important to keep your ears open and to give the orchestra your feedback. That is the first thing a conductor has to learn.”
He adds that in his opinion, musical talent and the ability to communicate are almost equally important for a conductor to be successful.
“A good ear is needed, of course, but also the ability to read the score in a personal way, to bring individual music ideas and to share them with your orchestra, to convince your colleagues in the most natural manner that this is what it’s about,” he says.
Some conductors tend to rule, to command their orchestras, while others are super nice and flattering to music ensembles.
What is Shani’s attitude toward his fellow musicians? “For me, it is communication at eye level. Both as a human being and musician, I don’t want to be beyond the orchestra nor beneath it. It is a give and take relationship.
I always wanted to conduct the best orchestras not because of their glittering names but because it gives me the chance to work with top-level musicians,” he says.
In regard to performing chamber music, Shani says he is somewhere between solo piano playing and conducting.
“It is about cooperation, about listening and maybe even learning one from another. Besides, I just love chamber music and am planning to introduce a chamber series in the Rotterdam Philharmonic,” he says.
The Jerusalem Chamber Music Festival takes place August 31 to September 9 at the YMCA auditorium. For more details and reservations: http://jcmf.org.il/