Rotterdam, 3 October 2020

Lahav is a gifted young conductor, on top of that he is an excellent pianist, he regularly conducts the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra from the keyboard, since he became their principal conductor in 2018. One year later, he played a full recital in Rotterdam with a demanding program: Scriabin, Prokofiev and Moussorgsky. He seemed as determined and as self-assured at the keyboard as before the orchestra and this sparked my curiosity. I wanted to know more about his background as well as his ambitions and I was lucky enough to speak to him on a Saturday, in the middle of concerts with pianist Daniil Trifonov and his Rotterdam Philharmonic.

Willem Boone (WB): I’d like to ask you a few questions about your career as a pianist if you don’t mind. I am very intrigued by that, I heard you about one year and a half ago when you played a recital here in Rotterdam and that was not exactly an easy programme..

Lahav Shani (LS): No, it wasn’t!

WB: The question that keeps haunting me: how do you find time to learn such demanding scores as the Scriabin 9th sonata when you also conduct Mahler and Bruckner symphonies?

LS: It’s a good question, I am not sure whether I know myself, but somehow you find the time when you know what’s ahead of you, you just find bits of time here, bits of time there, you grab whatever you have, but it’s more a matter of how intensive you get into the music. It’s not the quantity of time, but how deep you get into it, so if you really become involved with the music, interested, curious, you’ll find your way and just out of curiosity, you’ll find also more time, you will make more time. 

WB: Are you someone who can be very concentrated right away when you sit at the piano?

LS: Yes, sometimes I catch myself if there is a score lying on the table for instance, I take it just to see something and I find myself standing for half an hour all of a sudden, I wanted to look at one detail, but then I get carried on without noticing, I have to get myself to the score, to the piano, this is the lazy part, but once I am there, the curiosity takes over. 

WB: And if you are seated at the piano, for how long do you practice?   

LS: I don’t have a minimum or a maximum, it’s just whatever feels right, it’s never mechanical.

WB: And are you a very well organized person?

LS: No, on the contrary! I am very disorganized.

WB: Then it’s even more admirable.. What was the reason you played this one off recital in Rotterdam: do you like challenges or did you perhaps want to prove to yourself that you were able to do it?

LS: I was offered to play a recital in Berlin in the Boulez Saal, and of course I was very happy about my recital debut as a solo pianist and I liked to repeat it more than once so I was happy that they wanted it also in Rotterdam and other places, for instance in the Beethoven Haus in Bonn. When I started conducting in Berlin in my early 20’s, I didn’t completely neglect the piano, but I put it on the side and it was Daniel Barenboim who pushed me back to the piano, I played for him and he said: “With your skills, you have to keep playing” and since then, I took it very seriously and I am very glad he pushed me back in this direction. Now I can’t really imagine to do just one thing, just conducting or playing, I am happy to be able to combine both tasks. 

WB: If you play the piano, do you feel more nervous than when you conduct?

LS: A little bit, yes. Naturally, when you make small mistakes as a pianist, it’s heard and it’s resonating in the hall, when you make a small mistake as conductor, nobody knows (laughs), well, the musicians know.. 

WB: As a conductor, is it great to play the piano because you can produce your own sound?

LS: Yes, but it’s not easy to describe. When you conduct the orchestra, you also get your own sound in a way, I mean whatever you imagine in your mind, you should be able to put it into reality. It’s not so much about the sound, but this direct link between you and the music, the physical connection of course, any idea you have in your mind, you can put, theoretically at least, into practice at the moment. When the connection is so strong, like with the Rotterdam Philharmonic,  you have the same feeling as a conductor, you feel whatever is on your mind, you can put into practice, it can happen in reality. It’s such a great feeling when this connection is there.

WB: In what way does it help you as a conductor to be a pianist as well?

LS: I think it’s crucial, honestly I don’t understand how you can even become a conductor without even having at least the experience of performing on an instrument. I am not saying you should be a great soloist or instrumentalist, but to know how it feels to perform on an instrument, because then you conduct the orchestra. You can’t have any abstract ideas of the music, you should know how it feels for the musicians to play. If you ask them to take more time or to make a special sound, you need to be able to imagine how it is for them to breathe, to fill in the space. You are always somehow limited in the amount of expression if you don’t play an instrument yourself.

WB: Can it be what Vladimir Ashkenazy said, who was not a mean pianist himself, “It’s good that I play the piano because when I ask them to do something, I know what I ask them.”

LS: In my case, I also play the double base, so I have a special relationship with  string instruments, it’s something that I understand not only theoretically, I also feel it in my hands, so I can talk to musicians about bowings, fingerings, what strings they should use, I can get very technical with them, which actually is very helpful. 

WB: So the only thing that is still missing in your skills is a wind instrument?

LS: For this, I have my wife who is a clarinettist..

WB: That’s pretty complete! What impressed me so much when I saw you play, you seemed very self-assured as if you were conducting, as if it was common practice!

LS: Well, it’s the same thing, plus the sportive elements of course, the muscles have to react to you, but in your mind, it’s the same thing. The piano should sound like an orchestra.

WB: Ashkenazy also said you have to be careful when you are both a pianist and a conductor, because you use your muscles in a different way, when you play the piano, you need to be relaxed, as a conductor..

LS: You have to be relaxed as a conductor too!

WB: Is it a dangerous combination?

LS: No, I don’t think so, it’s a good combination, technically speaking with all the instruments and also with singing, they all have in common that you need to have an inner tranquility to control your instrument, so if you are tensed, if there is one tensed muscle in your body, you cannot play the piano well. Maybe until a certain limit, but once it gets more difficult, you have to be free, the same happens with the orchestra, if you get tensed, the orchestra gets tensed immediately. It’s like a telepathic connection, if you are free, then all the musicians are free, you can breathe with them, they trust you more, they see that you are relaxed and they get relaxed as well, so in that sense, technically, it’s very similar. 

WB: Do you consider yourself as someone with a double career or are you a conductor who also plays the piano?

LS: No, I am a musician (laughs). It’s not a career, it’s life to make music, that’s it!

WB: How difficult is it to keep up your piano playing to such a high level when you are so busy? 

LS: It’s not easy at all, but for this I should really thank my first piano teacher for 11 years, Hannah Shalgi, who gave me some very good basics of technique, if I don’t play for months and then I have a few days to get back into shape, I can do it pretty quickly because of this relaxed muscles and posture, you need to train your fingers again. It takes a few days for the muscles to remember what’s going on, however, it’s not like lifting weights, it’s finger muscles and flexibility, I think there is more in your mind to train than just the fingers.

WB: And these basics you were talking about, are they technical basics or is it also relaxation?

LS: Well, the relaxation is the father figure of all the technical aspects, without that you can’t do anything.

WB: Do you practice scales or octaves?

LS: No, well, when I was younger, yes, there are enough scales in Beethoven! I don’t need to separate them.

WB: True! And you started as a pianist, yes?

LS: That’s correct.

WB: And when did you come to conducting?

LS: I started as a pianist, then I started playing double base on top of that, in high school, and that brought me to conducting. I was very curious to feel what it was like to play in an orchestra, I loved the repertoire, I just wanted to take part in it. We had a wonderful high school orchestra in Israel with very talented young musicians, that’s where I started my orchestral career. By knowing the repertoire and knowing how it feels to lead a section, I got more into the idea of leading the orchestra. It happened so many times when I played in the orchestra that in my opinion musical elements were missing, “Why are we playing this passage so loudly when it’s so intimate?” “Why do we rush?”, “Why don’t we listen to the horn when he plays a solo?”. I said: “I can’t sit here and complain, I have to maybe try it once to see if I can put this into the shape that I think is the right one and if not, I am fine playing in the orchestra.” And I loved it directly, I missed it! 

WB: Later on this season, you will tackle another amazing challenge, you will perform the 3rd Prokofiev concerto both as a soloist and a conductor, although you are not the first one to do this, I also remember Dimitro Mitropolis and Van Cliburn, but my question is: why would you do that? It’s a very difficult concerto where you play almost all the time and the orchestra has a rather important part too, it’s a very symphonic concerto, so if I put it cynically, a lot of things can go wrong..

LS: A lot of things can go wrong too if you walk in the street…why bother? I like the adventure, I like to play and conduct in general, especially with the Rotterdam Philharmonic. Now they are used to it and we do it at least once or twice a season, mostly Mozart or Beethoven, but we also did Shostakovitch, Gerschwin. We have done the Prokofiev concerto once, with Martha Argerich as a soloist, so I was conducting the piece already with the orchestra, we worked on it when I was only conducting. It was important to do so before I play-conduct, and I knew that once we are used to it, it would be much easier, I know the problems that can occur when you don’t have a separate conductor. This concerto has such a clear inner rhythm, it’s something that the orchestra is supposed to control on their own, they don’t need someone to tick like a metronome,  they can feel it themselves. The tricky thing usually is tempo changes, because when you have a conductor, you establish a new tempo very easily, and when you play, you can’t do it with your head, so this is something you have to rehearse with the orchestra, maybe more than usual, but you can make it!

WB: Would you do it with any orchestra or with this one because you know it so well?

LS: With this one, because I trust them and they trust me. I feel with this orchestra, I can try whatever I want since they are not afraid of anything.

WB: I could imagine it would be perhaps more comfortable to do it once with a good conductor like Chailly or Jurowski?

LS: Yes, why not? It also works the other way around, I usually play-conduct Mozart, we did K 595 together in Rotterdam and last week, I collaborated with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and for the first time, I conducted this Mozart concerto and didn’t play it on the piano, and that’s also a great experience. 

WB: Who was the soloist?

LS: Francesco Piemontesi, he made his debut with the Berlin Philharmonic, and I must say, it was a really great experience, not to play and just conduct, but it’s different. Playing, conducting, playing and conducting at the same time are all different experiences.

WB: I am extremely curious to see what it would look like when you do both in the Prokofiev 3r!

LS: I am also curious!

WB: There are also pianists who do the Brahms concertos both as a conductor and soloist, are you tempted by these two concertos?

LS: I would love to, because I miss playing these concertos so much. Everything is possible, but I am not sure if I should do it, but it’s something to consider later. And yes, I like to play with other conductors, I played with Barenboim a few months ago, with Gergiev in Rotterdam, of course it’s a great experience and it releases you from a double responsibility obviously. On the other hand there is something very special when you combine both tasks, a chamber music quality..

WB: But not for the Prokofiev I suppose? Do you also consider that as chamber music?

LS: Of course, everything is chamber music on the stage, it should be! For me a conductor should be part of the orchestra, he is not an outsider who dictates something. 

WB: Is that also what you want to do when you conduct a symphony?

LS: Absolutely! The greatest feeling when you conduct and also when you play with other musicians, is when you sense that everything goes by itself, and you don’t have to worry about anything, you don’t have to show anything. Karajan had a wonderful image about this, it’s like you see birds flying in the sky, you don’t see one that leads and the others that follow, they all change directions at the same time.. This is how it feels, spiritually.

WB: I have to give you a compliment, I went to the last two performances of the Brahms 1st Piano concerto with Daniil Trifonov and I’ll be there tomorrow too, because there are so few concerts now that I’d better go when there is something special. The way you conducted the second movement was memorable, because all the musicians played as one. This is one of my favorite piano concertos and the second movement can sound like a prayer, the way you made them play was amazing, the whole performance was amazing actually..

LS:  Thank you very much! It’s also one of these moments that you let it happen, you indicate what’s important in that moment and then if it goes, you don’t interrupt.. That’s the art of conducting: to know when to be there and when to step out and let it happen. Sometimes you have to make these changes within seconds, you need to have a very strong feeling for it. 

WB:  You mentioned Barenboim a few times, was he your mentor?

LS: Yes, I can say so. He was never my teacher, I never showed him how I conduct and he didn’t give me any comments, but he always wanted to see me in his rehearsals to know that I am there. Of course, I was very curious, I went to many of his rehearsals, especially in the opera, and learned a lot: just what you can achieve with an orchestra and how you can achieve it, what are your possibilities? Sometimes, I asked him questions about the score and we discussed it, when I started to conduct my own concerts, he was always there to support me and give me advice. I was very proud that he played in Rotterdam as my first soloist, we became very good friends. 

WB: Do you consider him as a model?

LS: In many ways, of course. Most of what I know as a conductor comes from him, in terms of what you can achieve with an orchestra. It doesn’t mean that I do everything the way he does, not at all, we are different musicians and personalities with different tastes sometimes, but still.. I learned most of my tools from him. From other conductors too, as well as from my teachers. But his knowledge, his instincts are so rich and they cover so much: different styles and different repertoires. You can really learn when you sit in a rehearsal and hear him say something, how he achieves something. You are not supposed to copy that and do the same thing afterwards, but you should really take it inside, think about it, process it, and then it comes out from a different angle in a different piece, you know that something is possible now, you can use it. 

WB: I admire him for his stamina and also for the amount of works he tackled in his life, it’s mind boggling, 

LS: It’s inhuman!

WB: But if I may be a little bit critical, I don’t think that his piano playing is up to the highest standards any more, I read once in an interview and I was shocked when he said, referring to his piano playing, “When I play a recital and when I had time during the flight to look into the score, the audience is lucky!”, he literally said that!

LS: I didn’t hear that, but I still regard his piano playing, especially for Mozart and Beethoven, as absolutely ideal! It was wonderful to have him here as a soloist, not only because of the way he played, it was also the inspiration he gave the orchestra, the things he told the orchestra during the rehearsals, he is so inspiring as a musician!

WB: Deutsche Gramophon will shortly release I think his fourth cycle of Beethoven sonatas, I was wondering why would you ask a 78 year old pianist to record them all again when he did them probably better when he was younger?

LS: But then again, you can ask: why would you record any piece again? Why would you record the Brahms symphonies again, there are enough recordings of it.. If an artist feels he has something to say and especially someone like Barenboim, through the years he always developed, he was always rethinking what he already knew, I hope when I get to his age, that I still have the same amount of curiosity and ability to change my mind and rethink what I thought was obvious and not fall into a trap of routine or repeat what I know and what the public knows, just in order to please them..

WB: Just a few questions about Martha Argerich, you mentioned her before, was that Prokofiev concerto in Rotterdam the first time you played with her?

LS: I think it was, yes, it was the first time. 

WB: I was there and it was electrifying, I think she owns the Prokofiev 3rd!

LS: Yes, of course, I grew up with her recording! 

WB: How difficult is it to play with her as a conductor? I heard it’s very difficult to keep up with her.

LS: First of all, I knew her personally before and we get along very well. She is someone who absolutely needs to trust the musicians with whom she is working and we had a very good communication. I know the concerto very well, because I played it, I know from the recordings how she plays it, but she too, she changed over time! She actually changes from one rehearsal to the other, when we repeat a passage two or three times, it will be different each time. 

WB: Maybe that’s what can be intimidating..

LS: For me, it’s not intimidating, it’s what I hope to get from any artist! 

WB: I remember the legendary pianist Shura Cherkassky, conductors were terrified  of him, because he was very unpredictable, once he said to a conductor: “Don’t worry, I’ll play differently tonight”, 

LS: That’s a way!

WB: I saw a film with Martha rehearsing a concerto and she said to the conductor: “Well, probably, I’ll play it faster tonight”, that wouldn’t give me a very good feeling if I were to work with her!

LS: That’s the fun part, when I rehearse with an orchestra, I don’t tell them: “This is how we are going to play”, that’s not the ideal for a rehearsal at all. The concert is the moment to discover millions of things that you couldn’t do before, just by the fact that you are in a different atmosphere with a public. In the rehearsal you have to prepare all the conditions, everybody should know whom they should listen to, what is the balance, what are the problems that might occur, where do you need extra concentration to make a transition work, etc, all of this to make it possible in the concert to be totally free and spontaneous within the framework that you set for yourself. Then you let things happen, you explore new territories every time. 

WB: Can you be unpredictable too in a concert, like Martha?

LS: For me that’s the essence of music making! Just repeating what you know doesn’t work, what’s special for music, is that it happens in time, when you do it, when you perform it, unlike painting. In the moment it happens, therefore it must be different every time. 

WB: I can imagine that it must be frustrating when you are very well prepared and sometimes the result turns out less well, whereas you were really well prepared!

LS: You have to accept that a performance is never perfect, never! There is no such thing, nothing is perfect in life. You can approach it, that’s what you try to do in rehearsals and from one concert to the next, you get closer and closer, but the closer you get to perfection, the more you realize that’s it further away than you thought. That’s also the beauty of it, you realize it can always develop more..

WB: You also played duets with Martha, didn’t you?

LS: Yes, we did, we even played a two piano recital in Israel. 

WB: Was that her idea or yours?

LS: We had a day off in Tel Aviv and we said: “What should we do? Let’s have another concert!”

WB: How is it to play the piano with her?

LS: Wonderful, it’s like being one mind! 

WB: She is one of my heroes obviously, and I once read that she feels the other person and that she knows exactly what he is going to do.

LS: She is very sensitive and has great instincts, she is with you and then she takes you with her, it’s a wonderful game in a way, it’s a constant give and take. 

WB: She still plays fantastically, she is turning 80 next year, do you have any idea what can be the reason of her longevity because she even plays better than before, she played in Hamburg at the festival that was cancelled, but then she played the 3rd Chopin sonata and it was very different from what she did  before and yet it was..

LS: extraordinary!

WB: What can be her secret?

LS: It’s a combination of things: a very good basic technique, a very strong mind, everything is new and yet to be discovered, for instance when we did the Prokofiev, she didn’t reproduce what she had done for decades, even though she feels very confident with the piece. She is always searching for details that can still be different, not better, but different. 

WB: It is indeed different every time!

LS: If that’s your approach, if you always try out things, you will never stop! 

WB: Her tempi were exactly the same as in the 1967 recording with Abbado.

LS: I don’t know, we also played it in Vienna and it was different, she is reacting to the orchestra, of course. 

WB: There not many pianists who can play the 3rd Prokofiev concerto at almost 80!

LS: Not many can play it at 20! (laughs) 

WB: Do you have any other challenges coming up as a pianist?

LS: You know, for all of my future plans, there is a question mark in this period, we used to plan things three, four years ahead and now we are lucky to plan the next three, four weeks! 

WB: How many concerts do you have scheduled now?

LS: I lost all my concerts in the last six months like everybody else, I am lucky to play concerts in the Netherlands, it’s not obvious. The musicians are very much aware of the fact that they play and that it’s not obvious, I am grateful for that now, what we can do, is already a lot in these times. In America, it’s worse, no concerts in some places, they don’t even intend to open the season at all, it’s a nightmare. I feel so sorry for the musicians.

WB: What you did last night and the night before, it was so uplifting, when I entered the hall, it looked horrible, I had the feeling there were hardly 30 persons, there were more seats where you couldn’t sit than were you could sit, but actually when the playing started, you forget about all this. 

LS: You know, in June, we literally played for 30 persons, we played the Pastorale. Of course, I thought before: “Playing for 30 persons is like playing for no-one”, but then I realized: even if there is one person listening to you, you play completely differently, you perform. I also thought of Beethoven, if there had been 30 persons listening to this symphony, it would have been over the top. That might have been the maximum in his days, there was never an attendance of hundreds or thousands of people. The idea is to make music for people, period! 

WB: It’s such an incredible piece, this 1st Brahms concerto! How was the cooperation with Daniil Trifonov?

LS: Very good, he is a real searching artist. He is another one who does things completely differently every concert, he really listens to what comes out of the piano. He is constantly thinking of developing the sound world, to see what fits in a very honest way.

WB: I remember the first time I heard him was during a recital in Amsterdam and he started with “Reflets dans l’eau” by Debussy, there are not many pianists who grab you right away and he did. In every concert I heard by him, there were moments of heart-stopping beauty. The end of the second movement or in the cadenza in the third movement, he slowed down..

LS: He slowed down a lot…

WB: But it didn’t matter…

LS: And during the second concert, he didn’t, I don’t know if you noticed? He did it very differently yet again. In the first concert, it almost came to a stop, but it felt right. For him a concert is not only a performance, it’s also an experiment. He is trying out things every time and I think, for him, he has try it out with the public, because you can’t know when you practice if it’s the right way. You have to do it with people listening and see what takes them and then you try out things. He is constantly developing as an artist. His approach is really beautiful.

WB:  How happy are you to be the conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic?

LS: More than ever before! First of all for the fact that we are able to play. I talked a lot about our chemistry since our first concert and it’s still there. Even in these times with social distancing, one has to experiment, one has to stay flexible, one has not to be afraid of changes. This is just the perfect orchestra for that, because they want to try out music, they are curious, they don’t want to play safe and do what they already know for many years. They are very experienced musicians, talented, they know what do, still they want to develop, they don’t mind sitting in different ways, we tried circular sitting a few weeks ago, everything goes, as long as it serves the goal of better music playing and better delivery to the public. 

WB: I think they are about as good as the Concertgebouw Orchestra!

LS: I think they are as good as any orchestra in the world and for me definitely it’s a huge pleasure to play with them, because they are completely fearless, they take risks and they don’t mind taking risks and falling off the cliff, it’s not the end of the world in musical terms. I agree with Harnoncourt, who said: “Beauty can only be achieved on the edge of catastrophe!”

WB: O! And how often did you face catastrophe?

LS: During every concert! I absolutely agree with Harnonourt, it’s the essence of music making.