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Interview with Lahav Shani

Israeli born Lahav Shani is not yet 30 but he will next year become the Principal Conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic take over Yannick Nézet-Séguin. He is the Principal Guest Conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. He will become in 2020 the new Chief conductor of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra following the steps of Zubin Mehta. He has already conducted major world ensembles such as the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra, the London Philharmonia, the Berlin Staatskapelle... In 2015, he replaced an ailing Kazuki Yamada to conduct the Suisse Romande Orchestra and was immediately re-invited. He will be back in Geneva in October with the Rotterdam Philharmonic with Pinchas Zuckerman as soloist.

L. Shani with Suisse Romande Orchestra Konzertmeister
B. Zvoristeanu & Pianist R. Lupu (© Antoine Lévy-Leboyer)

ConcertoNet speaks with Maestro Shani after a rehearsal of Beethoven 4th Piano Concerto with Radu Lupu as soloist. Mr. Shani starts the interview with these words: “Let us speak freely”.

Tell us about yourself, this is the second time you are in Geneva but we do not know so much about you.
There is a lot to say, where do I start.

You started as a pianist.
I started as a pianist with the same teacher for ten years in Israel, Hannah Shalgi. In high school, I started playing double bass while still playing the piano. It was at the beginning just to be able to play in the orchestra. I was curious at first, but I become more and more attracted to playing seriously with the orchestra. I played often with the Israel Philharmonic as a substitute and on tours with them and with some other orchestras. Then I was more attracted to the idea of leading an orchestra.
It is not a question of promoting “my” musical ideas but doing what I think is the right way. Every conductor has a different way they think is the right way. Very often people talk about interpretation, I do not like this word as it implies you have your own ideas about the piece. It almost suggests the piece is not good enough and you have to make it better. What I try to do is to understand what the substance is, what is the wish of the composer in terms of atmosphere, texture, pacing and then explain and hopefully convince the orchestra this is the meaning, not that these are “my ideas” but really what the composer meant. I jump a little bit...
This is something that many in the orchestra feel themselves. It has nothing to do with how they feel towards the conductor. You can like him, but you disagree with the musician if you feel this is not the right way. But while you are a musician, you are part of the group and somebody has to make the decision.
So, I thought why not try to see if it works, maybe I am wrong. But I should try at least. And I did, and it end pretty well I think.
In any case, this my little philosophy on one leg.

What did you first conduct?
The very first piece I conducted was Beethoven’s First Symphony with a school orchestra. It was a very quick run-through and it included a few some pieces. This the very first time.

You told about the fact there is no interpretation but there are styles and school. When I was last in Jerusalem, I heard Zubin Mehta conduct Beethoven 8th Symphony. He is from a generation which has not learned the current practices with period instruments. How do period practices impact your way of doing music?
We are very fortunate these days to be well informed, as much this is possible. We would never know what exactly Beethoven was expecting. It was such a long time ago and it is lost. On the other hand, then there has been huge evolution in the performances from one conductor to the other. We know that his students like Czerny were great pianists and passed their ideas through their own students. So, we have an idea but cannot say for sure.
On the other hand, we should not avoid, reject or refuse to acknowledge all the developments and all the changes that went since then. It went to the point that Mahler rewrote and re-orchestrated the symphonies and overtures because he was sure that this is exactly what Beethoven would have done. It is not because he thought it would be better, but he thought that if Beethoven would have had the tools and the instruments of his day, he would have certainly done things different. And there is certain truth to it, you can certainly see in the scores that things are written in a way that reflects certain limits like for example, timpani at the time could not retune the instruments. You would have then two notes for a complete movement. Sometimes just for one bar, you want extra timpani but you cannot and so Mahler had the idea that if Beethoven could have had the chance, he would have another instrument... things like that. I am becoming a bit technical. This is true for other instruments who also have their limits.
In a way, we should not think that Beethoven wrote his music with his hands tied. This is the reality of the music he grew up at the time he wrote them, and this is the reality of the music. Today, the fashion is a little bit reverse, not to think what Beethoven could do today... but we try to recreate what was actually in his mind. When you read the score or listen to old recordings, made by Toscanini, Furtwängler and Klemperer, they are incredible, and you can learn so much about the scores and the music but they are quite far from what is written on the score.

What about tempi changes? The conductors you mentioned took so much freedom.
There are many aspects. This is an interesting phenomenon. As time went by, more and more conductors and instrumentalists for some reason had the necessity to keep the same tempo for an entire movement. I am not sure that the composers and performers in the 18th and 19th century were so rigid about it. The very fact that Beethoven was such a great improvisor suggests something about freedom. It does not mean that his writing is not rigid. He is probably the most rigid of all composers with all details in the right place. This is what is so inspiring with Radu Lupu, every detail is the right place, he has a very clear pulse thorough the movement, but the phrase is always breathing. You do not need to be rushing to the next note to be on time, you have exactly the time which is necessary between the rigidness of the pulse.

You are going to be the next chief conductor of the Israel Philharmonic. How do you feel about this task?
First, I feel very grateful for the orchestra for selecting me. You know, many of these musicians were my teachers when I was a student in Tel Aviv. There are many musicians of my generation who grew up with me. Some are my friends, some studied with me in the academy in Tel Aviv. As I said, I toured with them a lot as a double bass player and I really got friends with everyone. I was one of them. It feels as if they raised me and helped become the musician I am today. And so, it feels very organic to be there today and be part of this family officially.
This position comes with a lot of responsibility, there are a lot of things in mind. This is not like being a guest conductor where you come, do your week and go away to do something else. You are responsible for maintaining the level of the orchestra, for shaping their season, the ones to come and influencing the relation between the orchestra and the public. There are many things to consider. And so, I am very grateful that the orchestra felt that they can trust me and give me this responsibility which I am happy to take.

Will you play Wagner music at some stage? And I am sorry if many people are asking you this question...
Not so many people... I would love to play Wagner. I feel this orchestra was born to play Wagner. It is a pity they do not. They used to rehearse some pieces with Barenboim and Mehta many years ago. They do not do it anymore. It is a gap in their musical education. This is one of the best orchestras in the world for Mahler. Zubin has done a lot of Bruckner with them. It is really strange to do all this music and not Wagner. This is like playing Beethoven Symphonies and never touching Mozart or Haydn. You really miss something. I am sure that once we start playing Wagner, it would be fitting like a glove.
On the other hand, there are still so many people and so many feelings to consider. Myself, like all Israelis, I am from a family of Holocaust survivors.

When I went to Bayreuth, my aunt, who was an Auschwitz survivor, objected to my going there. I can understand but when in Bayreuth, I heard Jewish conductors... and told her this.
One of Wagner’s favourite conductors was Hermann Levi. Wagner thought Levi should convert to christianism because you cannot do Parsifal if you are not Christian because you may not understand the essence and the theme of the story. Of course, this is nonsense. But it was different time and the fact that this he was his favourite conductors tells us a lot. Even though, there are terrible things, he wrote these terrible articles. You have to put everything in perspective. It was obvious to be anti-Semitic in the middle of the 19th century unfortunately and it became fatal in the 20th century. Now I am happy to see that Germany is probably the least anti-Semitic country in the recent years, but it does not mean this is over. Hatred is not over, and it starts emerging again from every direction, so we must be very aware of it. But in the case of Wagner, if the feelings of people are hurt in a very direct way, then I think in this case, we should think about it. There is a lot to consider.

Where is home for you, giving all your works in Rotterdam, Vienna... and Israel...?
I was born and raised in Tel Aviv. I am without any question an Israeli. I feel very much at home in Tel Aviv whenever I am there. But I have been living in Berlin for the last ten years which I feel very comfortable spending my free time there. Musically, I am happy to have multiple homes and anywhere where you can find good music and good musicians.

How important is music in Israel? When I was in the ICC in Jerusalem, I saw people from all generations, soldiers in uniforms, everyone was talking loudly... and then the music started and there was a wonderful silence.
The very fact that the Israel Philharmonic has such a huge public and abonnements shows a lot especially for such a small country of 8 million people. Every program is repeated 5 to 7 times. There is nothing like this elsewhere in the world. 3 times is usually considered a lot. 7 in Israel is common and it used to be more than 10 times so there is a certain decrease
It appears there is so much necessity for music. In Israel the public is different from most of the rest of the world. In Berlin, there is a feeling for big curiosity for new things, for what we still have not heard and what can be different. In Israel, there is expectation for a certain relaxation, for hearing what we know and brings comfort. This has to do with the mentality and with the reality of life in Israel, the constant motion, the constant fear maybe in a way. Even though we do not act with fear but there is always something in the background. It always is changing and becoming something else. In a way, every Israelis brought up with the feeling it could be temporary, that things started a few years ago and we do not know if it would last. Everybody wants to kill us.

It is the most optimistic country I know.
Of course and this is exactly for that reason. You have to deal with reality in some way. You cannot live your whole life being frightened and Israelis are far from being frightened. We are amongst the most open and sincere people you can find. People would call it chutzpah and it is. We are always open and speaking out. Musically it is a big advantage. You do not keep things to yourself. You share your feelings and thoughts. We love debating, arguing... A lot of it has to do with the feeling that there is danger upon us all the time.

Will you bring the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Geneva?
We have not started planning tours but I will definitely want to bring them here.

[Interview with Antoine Lévy-Leboyer]



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