Conductor Lahav Shani will be in the Bay Area soon with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo/Marco Borggreve-Courtesy IPO)
Conductor Lahav Shani will be in the Bay Area soon with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. (Photo/Marco Borggreve-Courtesy IPO)

Israel Philharmonic returns to Bay Area with young, energetic maestro Lahav Shani

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The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will perform a guaranteed crowd-pleaser at its upcoming Bay Area concerts: Gustav Mahler’s ever-popular, klezmer-tinged Symphony No. 1, known as the “Titan.”

The orchestra will also premiere for two Bay Area audiences a distinctly Jewish work unfamiliar to most classical music fans, though in its way no less titanic. That would be Symphony No. 1 by the late Paul Ben-Haim, a piece that holds a special place in Israeli classical music history. Completed in 1940, it’s a favorite of conductor Lahav Shani, and he is eager to introduce it to audiences during the orchestra’s first U.S. tour since he was named music director nearly five years ago.

“It was the first major symphonic work ever written in [British Mandatory] Palestine,” Shani said of the work by Ben-Haim, who fled his native Germany for pre-state Israel in 1933. “It was written for this orchestra.”

The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) will perform on Nov. 6 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco and again the next evening at Bing Concert Hall on the Stanford University campus, after opening the tour with four performances in Southern California starting Nov. 2.

The IPO is Israel’s most venerated orchestra, tracing its origins back to 1936, when Italian maestro Arturo Toscanini conducted the first concert in Tel Aviv. Over the years, legends such as Serge Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein have led the orchestra, and Zubin Mehta landed the position of music director in 1977 and served as its chief conductor for decades.

Then along came Shani.

At 33, he is a Tel Aviv–born pianist, double bass player and conductor who first performed as a soloist with the IPO while still a teenager. In 2018, he was announced as Mehta’s successor at age 29, officially assuming the role in 2020 just as the Covid-19 pandemic upended the orchestra’s concert schedule.

That’s all in the past for the energetic young conductor, who says his long affiliation with the IPO made the generational transition a smooth one.

“It’s very easy because I have such an honest and natural relationship with the musicians,” he told J. from his Berlin home during a Zoom interview. “If we all like something, we cherish it and keep it. The musicians trust me, I trust them,  and we do everything out of respect and love of the music.”

Shani grew up in a musical household with a father who was a choral conductor. Though he studied piano as a boy, he said his parents caught him on videotape at age 3 picking up a baton and conducting the music from Disney’s “Fantasia.” He went on to great acclaim as a pianist and conductor, being named a guest conductor for the IPO in 2010 and winning first prize as a 24-year-old at the 2013 Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition (for conductors no older than 35) in Germany.

Taking over from the non-Jewish Mehta was a profound honor for Shani, who calls his mentor “the most important [musical] figure here since my childhood. We all knew that playing with Zubin was the highest thing you can achieve in Israel. He was a huge inspiration.”

Having won the Mahler competition by conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, and having conducted that same piece in his debut as an IPO conductor, Shani reveres the work. Nearly an hour in length, it is complex and varied, exemplifying Mahler’s own maxim that a symphony “should contain the whole world.”

Part of that world is the Jewish street music Mahler heard growing up in the mid- to late-1800s in Bohemia, then part of Austria. Born in 1860 to a Jewish family, he converted to Catholicism in 1897, likely as a career move in antisemitic Vienna. His Jewish roots can be perceived in some pieces. For example, the third movement of the Titan symphony features a theme that could almost pass as an early draft of “If I Were a Rich Man” from “Fiddler on the Roof,” though Mahler, who died in 1911, never acknowledged a specifically Jewish source of the music.

“I definitely feel a Jewish klezmer influence,” Shani said of the movement. “There is no right or wrong, because the origin of klezmer is related to other [Slavic] music. Also, Mahler was so full of influences from everywhere, from street music to marches.”

As for the Ben-Haim symphony, it is rooted in the virile post-Romantic German style of Mahler and Anton Bruckner, yet also influenced by the new forms of music the composer discovered living in pre-state Israel.

“When he came to Palestine, he met a famous singer who introduced him to Yemenite and Arab music,” Shani said. “This was a completely new musical language for him, and, of course, extremely exciting.”

Those influences can be heard in the symphony, Shani said. Ben-Haim continued to compose and teach through his late 70s, dying at age 86 in Tel Aviv in 1984.

In addition to his work with the IPO, Shani also serves as music director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra, and he still gives occasional piano recitals. He makes his home in Berlin, a good central location for the globetrotting conductor.

After just two years at the helm, he has already put his stamp on the IPO, commissioning new works from living Israeli composers such as Betty Olivero. He also has bolstered the orchestra’s outreach to young people to encourage them to discover, and hopefully learn to love, classical music.

“Education is extremely important,” he said, “and that’s something the orchestra has been doing for many years, helping children in need, giving them instruments, lessons, and then young musicians are invited to the IPO.”

Shani believes that when it comes to classical music appreciation, no one should be left behind.

“For anyone who is curious about music and is afraid it is not their language, they don’t have to understand it,” he said. “Like with a movie, you don’t have to understand how the camera operates, you just watch the story and let it come to you. If you have a piece of music and keep your ears open, you can enjoy it.”

Israel Philharmonic Orchestra

7:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 6 at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F. $50-$220. 

7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 7 at Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen St., Stanford. $20-$250. 

American Friends of the IPO is selling VIP tickets: Nov. 6 includes a pre-concert dinner and post-concert reception with Shani and musicians for $2,500 and up ($350 for ages 21-45); Nov. 7 includes a post-concert reception with Shani and musicians for $500 and up.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.