Twenty-four-year-old Israeli, Lahav Shani, has won the prestigious Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, Germany, which launched the career of Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Gustavo Dudamel, the victor in 2004. Feted by the competition’s patron Marina Mahler (granddaughter of the composer), Shani takes home 20,000 euros — and, more importantly, a greatly enhanced reputation in the music world.
Just making the final stages is an impressive achievement — only 12 were selected from an entry of more than 400. And, in a particularly strong year for Israel, another highly gifted conductor, Gad Kadosh, 28, reached the quarter-finals.
Candidates were assessed on rehearsals rather than performance. In the final, the remaining three contestants each had 40 minutes to rehearse the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra in the first movement of Mahler’s Symphony No 1. Shani’s competitors included Austrian David Danzmayr, nine years his senior and displaying all the hallmarks of a fully formed, high-calibre professional.
But Marina Mahler was adamant about what she was looking for in the winner. “It’s very simple — someone with the potential to become a great artist.” Had her grandfather been there, he too would have been looking for that same quality. In Shani, it seems, the jury believed they had found it.
Shani is a multi-talented musician with a flourishing career as a pianist. He is due to go to China to perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3. In addition, he plays the double bass and has performed in the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta. Indeed, it was on Mehta’s advice that he moved to Europe to study conducting.
How does he find the time for it all? “I don’t,” Shani responds laughing. “I am about to play this Rachmaninov, I haven’t practised for a week or more and it’s not very easy. But this is what I want to do, so I have to find the time and the solution. Piano and conducting are both my first priority.”
His experience with the different instruments feeds crucially into his conducting, he points out. Playing the piano makes it easier “to manage the score and understand the harmony”. As for his orchestral work with the double bass, “you have much more knowledge of the instruments because you are playing one, but also, psychologically, you understand how it feels to live inside an orchestra. So when you stand in front of one, you are much better able to talk to them in a way that will convince them to do what you want.”
Bamberg was Shani’s first international conducting competition and the pressure was considerable. “We had to study a variety of pieces, from Haydn through to contemporaries like Ligeti and Rolf Wallin. These works are so different stylistically and each is very demanding, so there was a lot to do in preparation. Then we were informed of the exact works we were about to conduct only one or two days in advance, which is, of course, very stressful.
“The main purpose became to simply do your best with the orchestra without thinking too much about your odds. But once we started, I felt how quickly and professionally the orchestra responded to me, how committed and united they are. I discovered it is possible to achieve great results with them and that meant I could overcome the difficult situation and just be myself.”
Echoing the sentiments, Gad Kadosh says: “It is stressful to conduct an orchestra you’re meeting for the first time — and an orchestra of this calibre even more so. Conducting pieces for the first time is always somewhat uneasy, too. But the jury members are very warm, the organising team is friendly and supportive, the atmosphere between the candidates is great and the orchestra is incredibly open, welcoming and responsive. All this makes it almost relaxed and enjoyable.”
Although he did not make the last three, Kadosh says he found the experience invaluable: “Just to be invited to take part in this competition is an honour. And tackling complicated scores like Mahler’s has taught me so much, forcing me to discover new questions and look for answers — my answers. Mahler was one of the leading conductors of his time and I often feel that through learning his music I can peer into that side of his mind.”
Both Shani and Kadosh are now based in Germany. Kadosh has a post at the opera house in Heidelberg; Shani is in Berlin, studying at the Hanns Eisler Hochschüle für Musik, but also spending as much time as he can with Daniel Barenboim. “He has been a great mentor for me,” he explains. “I am always in his rehearsals. We talk and I learn from him all the time.”
Although he misses Israel — “Tel Aviv will always be home” — he feels that moving to Berlin has helped him to develop as a musician. “I don’t think there are many cities or countries that can compete with the level of culture and education that we have in Berlin. I can listen constantly to the rehearsals of the greatest conductors of our time — and the Berlin Philharmonic is one of the greatest orchestras in the world. It is not so much that I had to leave Israel in order to grow up as a musician, but more that I had to go to a place that really allowed me to do so.”
Shani already displays an almost uncanny ability to inhabit physically the precise character of a phrase or musical gesture. Praising his natural musicality, the warmth of his communication and his relaxed, charismatic body language, the judges saw in him an extra spark that merited the coveted first place. Only time will tell if he can fulfil his potential, but he is well on the way to finding out.