You may not know his name yet. But you will.
Lahav Shani, the gifted and dynamic Israeli conductor and pianist who is picking up the baton from veteran Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra conductor and music director Zubin Mehta in 2020, is coming to Baltimore.
From March 15-17, Shani will headline three classical Baltimore Symphony Orchestra concerts at The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda and at Baltimore’s Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for a program featuring Prokofiev and Schubert.
Shani, only 29, and winner of the 2013 Gustav Mahler International Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, when he was just 21, started picking out Israeli tunes on the family piano as a toddler.
“The moment I discovered it, I didn’t let go. By the age of 4 or 5 I would play everything by ear, all the Jewish songs,” Shani said. “In kindergarten I would always play and the other kids would sing. It was basically obvious by the age of 6 or so that this is something I better develop seriously. That’s when I started studying more seriously with a teacher.”
His father is a choral conductor, but Shani said that was not what led him to pick up the baton. Rather, it was curiosity — and the double bass. As a high school student and pianist at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music in Tel Aviv he was not assigned to the school orchestra, but to the chorus, which his father was conducting.
“After two years singing in the choir and having a father who was the choir conductor, I thought, I had enough,” he said with a chuckle. “And I was getting more and more curious about what happens in the orchestral rehearsal room. Out of huge curiosity, I started playing double bass so that I could play in the orchestra and was immediately in love.”
“Maestro Shani is an exceptionally gifted conductor and musician, and we are very excited to have him here with us.” — BSO vice president and general manager Tonya McBride Robles
He continued his studies in Berlin at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler. Later, he was mentored by Berlin State Opera and Orchestra general music director Daniel Baremboim. By 18, he was a guest artist with the Israeli Philharmonic, where Mehta had reigned since 1977 as musical director. He also played double bass with the orchestra, but the highlight for him was in 2010 when Mehta invited him to tour with the orchestra, playing piano and double bass and acting as Mehta’s conducting assistant.
“I was only studying one year in Berlin at the time and I was speaking with Mr. Mehta and I said, ‘I would love to conduct the orchestra whenever there is a chance,’” Shani said. “As his assistant on the tour, my main job was to sit in the audience in every hall just to give some reference about the acoustics.”
Mehta thought it might be too early for Shani, but, during the tour, the musicians pushed Mehta to let the young Shani try his hand at conducting.
“He decided before the very last concert to let me conduct the orchestra and the piece was [Stravinsky’s] ‘Rite of Spring,’ one of the most difficult pieces to conduct,” Shani said. “It was incredible and he also was extremely supportive. It was the best way to conduct such an orchestra for the first time.”
Just eight years later and Shani, already having conducted orchestras around the world, is principal guest conductor of the Vienna Symphony Orchestra and poised to take over for music-world giant Mehta, now 81. The post might seem intimidating for one so young. But Shani said his many years playing with the Israeli Philharmonic, his familiarity with the musicians and a new crop of young musicians coming in make the idea less daunting.
“Of course, once you start comparing yourself to these giants you always think at some point, well, I’m probably in the wrong business. I’ll never be as good as them,” he said. “But the difference is, once you finally conduct the orchestra for yourself and you see that there is a certain history that is special for you and them at this particular moment, then there is no reason to compare yourself to anyone, because it’s something special that only happens when there is this kind of connection.”
“I feel very much at home conducting these orchestras,” he added. “I feel that I can be very natural and that musically and personally, everything really works on a very positive and fruitful way.”
Shani said he is excited to be making his debut with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this month.
“This is my first time,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to it.”
So is the BSO, according to vice president and general manager Tonya McBride Robles.
“Maestro Shani is an exceptionally gifted conductor and musician and we are very excited to have him here with us for this program of Schubert and Prokofiev,” she said. “He’s a fast-rising star in the music world and the recent announcement of his appointment as the next music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra underscores his impressive abilities.”
“This might be one key for the Jewish success in music, the ability to really get the audience in focus and really tell a story from the beginning to end.” — Lahav Shani
And although Shani’s music life may seem from the outside busy and overwhelming, he is still in love with his work, forging communication with the orchestra and the audience.
“It’s the feeling of sharing an experience together. That’s also I think the main thing that brought me into conducting and really attracted me — this feeling that you can have so many people on one stage and everybody is feeling exactly the same thing in every moment,” he said. “It’s really all the brains and all the hearts in the room becoming one and this is a very, very unique feeling that I don’t know if it exists anywhere else outside of music.”
“And making music is all about telling a story at the end,” he added. “This might be one key for the Jewish success in music, the ability to really get the audience in focus and really tell a story from the beginning to end and explore that.”
When he’s not conducting, Shani spends time with his fiancé, a clarinet player he has known most of his life.
“I like to spend the week at home once in a while and not do too much, just meet my friends in Berlin or in Tel Aviv or wherever I am,” he said. “And I cook at home and binge some TV shows on Netflix. You know, just be normal. In Israel I would go to the beach every day, play backgammon with friends. There’s enough to do on your free time.”
Shani is conducting the BSO’s program “Schubert The Great,” Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in C Major, March 15 at Strathmore and March 16-17 at the Meyerhoff with pianist Nikolai Lugansky. For more information and tickets, bsomusic.org.