Lahav Shani © Marco Borggreve
Lahav Shani
© Marco Borggreve

“I didn’t expect to win. I hardly expected to get the final,” Lahav Shani tells me. “I was already surprised that I was accepted to the competition!” The Israeli pianist and conductor’s rise to the top has been nothing if not meteoric. At 30 he’s already the Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra – since 2018 – not to mention the Chief Conductor designate of the Israel Philharmonic – he takes over from Zubin Mehta at the helm in the 20/21 season. And as we chat in a café in a leafy Berlin square, he has no difficulty pinpointing the moment his career trajectory started heading so precipitously skywards: winning the Bamberg Symphony's Mahler Competition in 2013.

“At the time I was still a student in Berlin at the Academy,” Shani recalls, “and I remember saying to myself: If I win the third prize, I would be able to live for a whole year just from the prize money.” It was the first, and last, conducting competition he took part in, and he was set against competitions at the time: his attitude, though still ambivalent, has now mellowed. “I remember my conducting teacher at the time, Christian Ehwald, just said, ‘Why don’t you go to a competition?’ He made me choose one from a list he’d printed. I chose Bamberg, really not knowing what to expect. Maybe the orchestra would end up liking me at least, I thought, or maybe they’ll invite me back to do a Family Concert or something. But those were more fantasies than expectations.”

As it turned out, the reality even exceeded Shani’s fantasies, and he still pinches himself at the speed with which everything has happened since. “I just really enjoyed my time there,” he explains. “I loved the repertoire” – Mahler, unsurprisingly, predominates – “and I loved the orchestra. It was the first time I’d been in Bamberg and the first time I’d heard the orchestra, and I fell in love. Right from the first notes, I felt, here were very positive human beings – very professional, very talented and experienced. I felt they wanted to support me. It was a great start, and very quickly I forgot that it was a competition. I didn’t try to impress anyone, I didn’t say anything designed to impress the jury. I just had what, for me, were like very normal rehearsals.” This competition, he explains, is unusual in the time it allows for working with the orchestra.

Lahav Shani at the Mahler Competition © Peter Eberts
Lahav Shani at the Mahler Competition
© Peter Eberts

And the young conductor impressed the judges in ways that went beyond that first prize. The repertoire comprised three Mahler symphony movements and a song cycle, a complete Haydn symphony and contemporary music, including Act by Norwegian composer Rolf Wallin, who was also on the jury. “I’ve done Act many times since, with different orchestras, and it’s always a success,” says Shani, who got to know Wallin during the competition. Another juror, conductor Markus Stenz, opened doors too. “At the time he had two orchestras – the Gürzenich Orchester Köln and the Radio Filharmonisch Orkest in the Netherlands – and he invited me to both. I did two very important debuts with them, conducting my first Schubert 9 and Tchaikovsky “Pathétique”, pieces that I still take with me wherever I go.”

Lahav Shani at the Mahler Competition © Peter Eberts
Lahav Shani at the Mahler Competition
© Peter Eberts

He remembers open channels communication with the jury throughout the competition, not just after the prizes were announced. “I remember at the beginning of the competition there was a get-together for all the contestants and the jury, and we talked to each other and exchanged ideas. It was interesting – a very open environment.” He also now counts the competition’s honorary juror, Marina Fistoulari-Mahler, as a friend. “To this day she is a great friend and supporter and we stay in touch and meet wherever we can. This friendship is very important to me.”

Another friendship cemented during the competition was that between the young conductor and the Bamberg Symphony, which he returns to conduct regularly. “I try to come back as much as I can,” he tells me. “They’re an amazing orchestra – one of the best in Germany, one of the best in Europe.” The orchestra has unique origins, set up after World War 2 by German musicians rendered homeless by the newly-drawn borders of Czechoslovakia. Does this make for a special sound, I ask? “In the end, it’s a combination of knowledge and tradition, but also of love of the music – especially love of Mahler. You feel it in the sound, and especially in the way that they speak this language. You don’t have to teach them anything: they just understand it.”

The Bamberg win led to such a flurry of invitations that Shani had to pare down another not insignificant side of his musical activity as a pianist. “I wouldn’t say I neglected it,” he says of his playing, “but it had to be pushed a little to the side. I still played a bit of chamber music and played-conducted concertos, but only recently started playing a lot again.” Last season saw recitals at the Beethoven-Haus Bonn and the Pierre Boulez Saal. A recent CD features him playing Tchaikovsky and Dvorâk trios with Renaud Capuçon and Kian Soltani. Another string to Shani’s bow was as an orchestral double bass player, which he credits for giving him valuable understanding of the orchestra from the inside: “That knowledge I have today, especially about strings – technical as well as psychological, of how it feels to be in an orchestra – would otherwise have taken me 20 years to build up.”

Lahav Shani at the Mahler Competition © Peter Eberts
Lahav Shani at the Mahler Competition
© Peter Eberts

The young Shani first worked with Zubin Mehta in both these capacities – as orchestral musician and piano soloist – and when we meet, he’s taking advantage of a small break before a big autumn tour with his Rotterdam orchestra to get back in the virtuoso saddle, reacquainting himself with Rachmaninoff’s fearsome Third Piano Concerto ahead of performing it with another long-term supporter, Daniel Barenboim. “I started studying in Berlin in 2009,” he explains, “and Barenboim was there from the beginning. I met him early on and he was supportive immediately. We’re very close to this day – both musically and personally. As a student I would go and watch Barenboim’s rehearsals with the Staatsoper on a weekly basis. It was my second school: I was at the Hanns Eisler Hochschule with my teacher studying the scores, while also seeing the actual thing in rehearsals. That’s how all conductors have always learnt – by watching others.”

He’s also got some more straightforward advice for any young conductors taking part in the 2020 edition of the competition in Bamberg: “Study the scores,” he says. “Nothing else matters, because, at the end of the day it’s a bit of a lottery. Maybe you have a good day, maybe not. Maybe the jury likes you, maybe not. You can’t plan these things, and you need a lot of luck. But you can spend a lot of time actually studying the score.” But it’s not all about the winning: the taking part – especially in Bamberg – has huge benefits too. “The scores I had to learn, the amount of thought I have to put into it, my experience with the orchestra: there are so many positive things I would have gained from being at the competition, even if I’d never won.”

Click here to see Lahav Shani's future performances.

This article was sponsored by the Bamberg Symphony.