Lahav Shani talks about picking up Zubin Mehta's baton

Mar 11, 2018, 10:00 IST | Shunashir Sen

'Wunderkid' conductor Lahav Shani, who will soon take over the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra from the master, speaks about his relationship with his mentor

Lahav Shani
Lahav Shani

Watching Lahav Shani online, making his debut in 2013 as a conductor for the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO), makes for a study of the finest traits of human behaviour. Around 100 musicians 30 to 40 years his senior hang on to every hand movement, every expression of the 24-year-old's, waiting to put their heart and soul into their instrument when he gives them their cue. And Shani looks at them after the concert ends to thunderous applause with a smile and a nod of the head that seems to convey both his satisfaction and immense gratitude. For, these very musicians had coaxed him into conducting them. They had together urged the mighty Zubin Mehta to give the prodigy a chance. And such has his progress been that now, less than five years later, Shani is slated to take over from Mehta as IPO's music director from 2020-21. Mehta will be 83 years old then. Shani, today, is still just 29.

Zubin Mehta. Pic/Getty Images
Zubin Mehta. Pic/Getty Images

"None of the musicians had told me initially that they were pushing Zubin to let me conduct," Shani tells us over the phone from Berlin. "But he was reluctant at first. He thought that I should take my time, and not rush into it. Zubin wanted me to make such a good first impression that I would be called upon repeatedly [to conduct]. I agreed with him. But then I was eventually asked to step in for someone who had fallen ill, and the encouragement I got from the musicians gave me the confidence I needed. The first piece we did was a difficult one. But to do that with friends who were supportive and helpful was a fantastic feeling."

It's not that Shani's proficiency was ever under question. On the contrary, for him to pursue music was almost preordained. "My father [Michael] was a choir conductor and, as a child, I used to go to his rehearsals all the time. In fact, the very first music I was addicted to was choir rehearsals," he says about his formative years in Tel Aviv, crediting his piano teacher, a woman named Hannah Shalgi, as the one who started giving concrete shape to his prodigious talent when he was all of six years old.

Then, when he was 18, Mehta took over. The two first met at the music school at Tel Aviv University, which the latter had co-founded and where Shani enrolled for formal education. "I was planning to become a double bass player. But, at some point, I started performing as a solo pianist. So, I was playing Tchaikovsky on the piano with Zubin one evening, and then, the next evening, I was on the double bass," he recalls.

In the process, the teenager's undeniable capability caught the veteran's eye. So, Mehta suggested to Shani that he study conducting in Europe, which he did, choosing Berlin as his destination. "But I was in touch with Zubin throughout, and he asked me to join him on tour during my first year of studies as an assistant conductor," he says, adding that it was on that very tour that the IPO musicians - unbeknownst to Shani - first started sending Mehta feelers about letting him conduct.

So, what is the one takeaway from his years with Mehta that Shani will carry with him forever? He says, "You know, when Zubin conducts, all the musicians feel as if he is looking at them all the time. Can you imagine that? We are talking about 100 people! And he doesn't watch them as if to see that they don't make mistakes. The feeling is more like that of a father watching over you all the time."

Soon, after about 50 years, it will be time for that "father" to put down his baton, only for Shani to pick it up. He'll first finish a one-year stint as the chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. Then, he says, he will focus on adapting to the changing demographics of the IPO. "The average age of the musicians has dropped by around 30 years. A new generation is feeling the magic of the orchestra. So, it is very important to shape the future. But, I can't say that I am going to change everything, not at all. The idea is to ensure that the good things stay the way they are, and that we preserve IPO's incredible legacy. To lose that is the last thing that I would want."

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