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The new director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra must recapture the young

Twenty-nine year-old Lava Shani's appointment, which skips two generations, will rejuvenate an orchestra that has been coasting for years

    Lahav Shani takes over as IPO musical director in 2020
    Lahav Shani takes over as IPO musical director in 2020 (Photo: Getty Images)

    There was no mistaking the ferment last week at the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

    The players had voted on their first change of chief conductor in half a century and some were almost stunned by their temerity at choosing a native-born Israeli of 28 years to succeed Zubin Mehta.

    Two whole generations had been skipped and there were few regrets to be heard.

    “This is the best thing we have done for as long as I can remember,” one player told me.

    Lahav Shani is something of a comet on the world stage. A protégé of both Mehta and Daniel Barenboim, he was named chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic on the strength of a single appearance.

    He does not always go down quite so well. In Birmingham two years ago, half the players objected to what they saw as his high-handed attitude. But he is certainly gifted and the music profession in Israel feel he is exactly what the Philharmonic needs.

    The IPO, in terms of both achievement and prestige, has been coasting for quarter of a century.

    Founded by Hitler refugees in the 1930s and patronised by the café-dwellers of Tel Aviv, the orchestra has seen its audience grow old and its output stagnate. An influx of Russian musicians and concertgoers in the 1990s gave a brief blip of renewal but the IPO was set on a road to irrelevance. Young Israelis go to clubs, not concerts.

    Part of the problem has been the IPO’s resistance to change. The orchestra, its organisation and its audience are overwhelmingly Ashkenazi Jews.

    No Israeli Arab has played in its ranks and few have dared to apply, daunted by a well-established perception of prejudice. Although most musicians are now sabras, the subscribers tend to be savtas — and this granny audience flees in dismay at the first crash of a Bartok cluster-chord.

    Mehta, who promised to integrated Arab musicians and perform a Wagner opera, did neither.

    Shani is aware that change is urgently required. The retiring executive director, Avi Shoshani, needs to be replaced with someone of Shani’s generation who can diversify the demographic and redefine the orchestra’s role, both home and abroad.

    Seventy years ago, the Israel Philharmonic was the pride of a young nation. Today, Lahav Shani needs first to recapture the young.

    Norman Lebrecht is a commentator on music and cultural affairs