Lahav Shani knows a thing or two about making a good first impression. When the Israeli-born conductor made his debut with the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra in June of 2016, the outfit was seeking a replacement for its departing longtime leader, Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Their chemistry with the young maestro was evident, and before the end of the summer, he had been offered the position of chief conductor. At 27, he became one of the youngest maestros to occupy a podium in Europe.

Lahav Shani
© Marco Borggreve

Shani felt the connection immediately himself. “It was one of those rare things when you go onstage and even within the first minute, before I even started to play the music with the orchestra, I somehow felt a really good spirit in this place,” Shani says on a recent video call from Tel Aviv, where he is also music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. “The musicians are actually curious about music and music-making. Very quickly it was clear that this was going to work well between us. In the first break, I called my then-girlfriend – now my wife – and told her that I really hope they will offer me the job.”

Youth has never been a problem for conductors in Rotterdam. Nézet-Séguin, Shani’s immediate predecessor, was 33 when he took over the orchestra, as was James Conlon when he became chief conductor in 1983. Edo de Waart was even younger when he began leading the musicians there in the early 1970s. Still, I wondered if Shani felt any trepidation taking on the mammoth task of shepherding a leading international orchestra before his thirtieth birthday.

“I didn’t even think about it,” he replies confidently. “I just thought about the fact that there was such a good connection, such good chemistry with the other musicians. My dream was always to make music with great musicians. It was not to be at the center of the stage. It was not to be a conductor, to be famous. I just wanted to make great music with great musicians. When I found this orchestra, it was clear that this was going to work.”

“You can have a very young conductor coming to a great orchestra, and it will work – as it did in our case,” Shani continues. “You can have an older and very famous conductor coming to a great orchestra, and even with very high expectations on both sides, it’s somehow not working because there is no chemistry. They don’t understand each other well, or they have very different approaches and cannot really communicate. You really cannot always tell how it is going to be until it actually happens in the moment.”

The relationship began officially at the start of the 2018-2019 season, and it was still young when the great pause of the Coronavirus pandemic closed in on the classical music industry. Still finding their way together, Shani and the Rotterdam players had to pivot.

“First of all, we couldn’t play for the public, and we had to be creative,” he recalls of those early, uncertain days. “We wanted to keep making music, because music in that sense is like sports. If you don’t play, you’re not using your muscles. You’re not using your brain, and these things start to deteriorate. You really need to work on it and to keep in shape. It was very important that we were able to come up with interesting ideas – for example, about how we seat the orchestra, because of the distance we had to maintain between musicians. We came up with the idea of putting the entire orchestra in a circle, with myself in the middle, and I had to rotate each time into the right direction. But it meant that the musicians could play toward each other. They could actually listen to each other.”

Luckily, the dark days have passed, and Shani is not only leading the Rotterdam Philharmonic on their home turf – he’s taking them on the road. In December this year, he will bring the orchestra to LuganoMusica, for a performance anchored by Bruckner’s mighty Symphony no. 9 in D minor. The program will also feature Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 3 in C minor, with Yefim Bronfman as the featured soloist.

Shani is an accomplished pianist in his own right, a quality that helps to influence his leadership in the Beethoven concerto. “The better you know a piece of music, the better you can perform it,” he says. “In that sense, when you can play the solo part, you really know it from the inside out. You can take much more freedom than otherwise, because the conductor really feels the tendencies of the soloist. It’s not just about listening and seeing where the soloist is going, or anticipating them. If you really know how it feels to play a piano part in a concerto, then whenever something happens you are always somehow in telepathic connection with the soloist.”

He effuses about working with Bronfman. “He is one of my dear friends, and it is always a joy to play music with him,” Shani said. “He has everything. Everything is straightforward with him – it is simple, honest musicianship. He is not trying to make himself look good. He is just absolutely in the truth of the music. But on top of that, he is one of the best instrumentalists in the world. He can do anything on the piano. This combination of having no limits alongside a very natural approach to the music really makes him a unique artist.”

Lahav Shani
© Marco Borggreve

I mention to Shani that Bruckner seems to be overtaking Mahler as the quintessential conductor’s composer these days. “I can only say that he is one of my favorite composers, and playing Bruckner’s music is almost a style of its own,” he replies. “He makes the entire orchestra like one organism, like an organ, and he makes the different sections of the orchestra like one. There is a fantastic combination of sound – this Brucknerian sound that is very deep and full of grandeur. It just fills you will emotion. At the same time, it’s full of complexity and counterpoint, like in the Fifth Symphony and also in the Ninth. Daniel Barenboim always says something about Bruckner that I think describes it in a very good way: It is music that makes you feel not only that you’re building a very big building, but that you’ve had to dig very deep. In other words, it’s almost like archaeology. The deeper you dig, the more you go back in time.”

The Rotterdam Philharmonic will surely bring the refined combination of archaeological precision and musical passion to the international audience assembled in Switzerland. Beyond that, Shani hopes to continue deepening their bonds over the coming years. In 2020, his contract was extended through 2026 – a decade past his first appearance with the orchestra – and it’s possible the relationship will reach beyond that. After all, he won’t even be 40.

“What I love about this orchestra is that they are so flexible in terms of their musical approach,” he tells me. “They have their own sound and their own approach, but at the same time, whether we do Bruckner or Bach or 21st century music, they can always adapt. They find the right sound and the right style without losing their identity. I used that fact from my very first season with the orchestra. I would do one program that was entirely Bach, one program that was Shostakovich, one that’s all 21st century music, all Second Viennese School. All in one season! Just because I wanted to show the fact that they can do everything on the highest level.”

This interview was sponsored by FondazioneLuganoMusica.