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Pianist Elisha Abas – Scriabin in the Genes

This article is based on the article published by Staccato (Photos of Elisha Abas courtesy of Elisha Abas) at PianoNews in German and it was published in English at Moment Magazine.

The ante has just been upped: at the personal request of powerhouse conductor, Gustavo Dudamel, pianist Elisha Abas will perform with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra in Caracas in July of 2013. Says Abas: “We have a great rapport and I feel Dudamel’s contagious energy.  I am sure it’s going to be an extraordinary experience.” After hearing Abas perform in his native Israel in 2011, Dudamel had invited Abas for the first time, but as a result of last minute changes he himself was replaced by Venezuelan conductor Eduardo Marturet. Aba played, nevertheless, and was full of praise for the youth orchestra that, as he experienced it, “carries the same enthusiasm that Dudamel himself embodies so explicitly.”

Photo credit: Oren R. Cohen Abas and Dudamel will be performing Brahms’ Piano Concerto no. 1 this summer in Venezuela, not Scriabin, although Abas is now intensively involved in preparing for Scriabin’s upcoming anniversary in 2015. Several Russian concert programmers have recognized the fascinating musical correlation between Abas and his great-great-grandfather, Scriabin, and have asked Abas to perform works by his ancestor, including his piano concerto.

Abas explains:  “I have always been exposed to his pieces, but lately have developed an especially close affinity to his work. I almost feel a spiritual connection, a familiarity that is hard to explain; but when my mother recently asked me, why I am not playing more Scriabin, I realized I was already engaged in building a program centered around this mystical figure in my life. It is coming all together full circle - his anniversary, my turning back to him and his music … “ And he continues:  “There is definitely a strong connection being channeled through pianistic aspects; when I play his pieces, my fingers almost lead their own way through the passages; there is a feeling of kinship from deep inside. It’s different than with other composers, it comes so easy to me, so self understood, as if I know the music already from within,” he says, reflecting on the project’s repertoire, however, is just the most recent endeavor in his effort to launch a full-scale comeback for his career as a pianist – a career that began many years ago.

It almost seemed that Abas was destined to take up the piano as a child, yet from the very start, his talent would also present him with a liability. Soon after the toddler astonished his neighbors with his impressive singing skills which led to his first piano lessons, his parents understood that nothing less than extreme devotion would be necessary to foster their son’s extraordinary talent. Open conflict arose when his father Shlomo’s fervent involvement in Elisha’s early career caused young Elisha to rebel against his father’s strict discipline. Abas realized only much later, that his father’s ambitions were an honest effort to encourage his son’s rare potential, and allow him to be the best that he could be.  Today, he and his father - a prominent storyteller and author of numerous children books - are best friends.

Part of Abas’s prominence as a child came from performing, on several occasions, for the legendary pianist, Arthur Rubinstein.  Abas received Rubinstein’s unwavering acknowledgement in the form of a golden Rolex with the inscription, “For Elisha. Arthur Rubinstein. Good luck”. Abas still wears it today.  There is a charming story behind the story: “I had just played a house concert for the exiled Prince Jose of Italy in Geneva, where Rubinstein lived with his guest, Annabelle, later to become Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld. I played a lot of Chopin, Schumann, and also some Schubert. My father, who accompanied me on my trips, had come with me. When I had finished – as to make sure it was not a lucky strike, Rubinstein said: “Wonderful, now play it again.” I did, and the next day – I had planned to go skiing - Annabelle said they wanted to meet us again. She said: “I have a gift for you,” and gave me something that, at the time, was really special - a Walkman. This was in 1992, and must have been one of the first ones, and I cherished the thought of probably being the first person in Israel who owned this novelty, held in an elegant leather cover. And then Rubinstein approached me and said: “I have something else for you as well,” handing me a little box, gift wrapped and adorned with a bow, asking me: “Can you guess what it is?” I had been spoiled by many gifts after performances, and I had one brand of chocolate I was particularly crazy about. It came in small packages like this. So full of expectation, I said: “It’s chocolate!” To my surprise I found this golden watch instead. Along with it, I was also given some of Rubinstein’s own recordings and a photo with a dedication to me, saying something like: “To Elisha, who fascinated me especially with his Chopin playing, and who will hopefully fulfill his great calling.’”

Although this endorsement by Rubinstein would have been considered a huge feat for any pianist, and despite the many Israel-America Cultural Foundation competitions he had won during the successful start of his piano career, Abas still decided to quit, and escape the increasing pressure of the music world at age 14. The teenager had come to the conclusion that the constant battle between the ‘normal life’ he coveted and the love and respect he received in his musical endeavors created stress and neuroses, which, to him, seemed too high a price to pay. “The decision to stop at age 14 allowed me to develop many sides of me,” says Abas, who is now 41 years old. “I grew up in a very simple environment. Already within my own surroundings, being honed as a concert pianist was not exactly the norm. …The travelling, the pressure of being a “Wunderkind,” and being shown off to all sorts of people, performing around the world… Some enjoy it, but for me it was not the right thing …there were other thing to conquer, that’s what I felt at the time.”

Even though he chose to abandon the world of music of his youth in favor of an active soccer career (Abas played for all the major leagues in Israel), his feelings of respect for music never left him entirely. Also deeply ingrained in him was a keen sense of obligation and gratitude to his teachers and his father, for all the support he had received and for the discipline they had taught him on his way to becoming a musician.

He particularly remembers his first teacher at the Jerusalem Conservatory, Esther Medvetzki, and then of course the widely admired Israeli pianist, Pnina Salzman, herself a student of Cortot, who had accepted Abas as her student and had opened the world of concert stages for him. Back then, Abas’s entire family relocated from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv to enable lessons with the famed pedagogue and Abas blossomed under Salzman’s tutelage. He talks affectionately about Pnina, referring to her as the person who changed his life not once, but twice. After taking him on as a student, she was able to refine and direct his already mature pianism and musicianship. The second change came when she took a spontaneous phone call from Abas, even though they had not seen each other for many years. Although he had explored many diverse challenges, and had even started a family, he describes the time before meeting up again with Pnina Salzman as particularly painful: “I had been in an emotional state of almost being numb, not letting my emotions get out,” he reflects, describing the time between his abandonment of the piano and that fateful second meeting. It had taken him years to eventually realize that first and foremost, he was a musician. He very vividly remembers the situation in which this simple and obvious fact really struck him: “My car had been stolen, and for three weeks the insurance company gave me a rental car in Israel, which only had an old fashioned cassette player. All my old cassettes were [recordings of] classical music, and I put the Second Concerto by Brahms. I drive a lot, {so this cassette] kept playing over and over …  I wanted ‘my’ music in my life again. I was 30 at the time, had already my two kids and a family, and I realized that ‘inner voice’ calling on me once more: I had to perform again.” After finally realizing that there was no escape for him from the piano, Abas contacted Salzman: “At first she mistook me for a different Abas, a tuner she was expecting to make an appointment with, but then, when she understood it was me asking to see her, she said: ‘Come now!’ And I came.  It was eleven o’clock at night, I was in my car, and was bringing her chocolate and cigarettes.”  At that stage, Salzman had stopped smoking for many years, so she put the cigarettes to the side. Yet, the next day she but picked them up and gave in to her suppressed desires, just as Abas did in terms of his music. He continued to study with Salzman during the following four years, and stayed with her until her death in 2006. Abas’s drive to perform helps to understand the power of live performance, and the fact that creative spontaneity and the intoxicating ‘smell’ (as he calls it) of a performance cannot be taught, but must be felt. He says: “There is a small margin between control and freedom that the artist has to walk constantly, like on a tight rope. Very few know to negotiate that line without losing balance and leaning too much to one side. My piano teacher never tried to show things, or make them clear through specific instructions: she always tried to evoke the meaning. While I studied Brahms’ 2nd Concerto with her, and having been raised listening to that piece, I became very emotional during the first movement. The piano’s voice was meant to accompany the orchestral voice [during this movement], so my emotion was not really appropriate for the musical voicing. She reacted by marking 38 degrees (Celsius) on a piece of paper, and saying: ‘This is what we need -- not 40 degrees!’  She did not want to tell me exactly what much I should do; 38 degrees feels different to everyone, but everyone understands that 38 is not 40 degrees. This was the essence of her approach: to help me understand how to moderate my style and emotion within the context of the composer’s vision.”

Today, Abas is happy to be able to look back on the different experiences in his life, including leaving high school early, his job in publishing, the long run as a soccer player, and even studying for law degree, all while he also contributed to raising two kids. He reflects on his life as a musician today: “To be inspired, you are always stimulated by personal exchange, and not just by the music score. You can’t get everything in the practice room. As a performer you can’t separate the artist from his or her own personality. It’s out there, in the little gestures, mannerisms and moves. When I sit at the piano, I like to sit on a chair with a back – like I do at home when I practice; I sit still and let the fingers do everything necessary. You actually use less energy like this and the body does not need to express anything, just the fingers!” Photo credit: Oren R. Cohen During the last several years, Abas has built up a performance schedule that, according to him, has kept him busy enough. Teaming up with the energetic Simona DeFeo, he has also managed to introduce his savvy new ideas to the New York music market. Their shared concept, New York’s Concert Meister Series, opened the door to performance opportunities for visiting orchestral soloists. It cannot be easy to step into the pianistic “ring” after others have already built up a following over many rounds of performances, but perhaps it is exactly this kind of fresh courage and determination that marks a true artist. Abas’s playing and worldview indeed bear a remarkable resemblance to those of the artists of the Golden Age of Piano that he so admires. Abas is more than aware of today’s particular challenges. “Today it is a big problem to build one’s career; one gets so busy with building a forum and it makes one too careful to take risks. One becomes afraid to sound too unique or not unique enough, one is afraid of the critics, the audience… As an artist one has to be willing to take risks. Also, you have to offer something fresh. I doubt anybody can do that night after night, performing the same concerto, even if in different cities. I feel today’s possibilities of reaching wider audiences all over the world somehow decrease the artistic ingredients of performing.” And he continues: “It’s true that, like the clown, a performer has to be able to detach himself somewhat from his personal life, to whatever extent that’s possible. I can smile a little while sad, but I am not sure how much you can really take the person out of the performer, or how much you would want to.” Abas’s recent performance at the Staatstheater in Kassel, Germany, reunited him with one of his favorite young musicians, the Israeli conductor, Yoel Gamzou.

Photo:FAZ Yoel Gamzou Gamzou gained attention when he premiered his new edition of Mahler’s 10th Symphony at the age of 23; in this edition he integrated some of Mahler’s original ideas that previously had only existed in fragmented sketches. Others, like Deryck Cooke and Berthold Goldschmidt in 1960, had attempted to reconstruct the oeuvre’s character by building on these fragments before him. Schott Music published Gamzou’s version, which was premiered in 2010 during the Berlin Jüdische Kulturtage (Jewish Culture Festival) with the Mahler Orchestra, an international orchestra of young musicians from 20 countries. Gamzou calls Abas: “One of the most extraordinary musicians I have ever encountered, a combination of indescribable musical genius and utter human and artistic simplicity, in its purest and only positive sense, at the same time. Working with him was an experience which has changed my life and my perspective on music, and I have always said that if I were to have been a pianist, I would have liked to play like Elisha. Rarely have pianists’ mastered timing and color in such an unmistakable and convincing way. Rarely have people made form and conventions so redundant, bringing us directly to the core of music. Elisha is a very special and unusual person, and, quite a rare find in nowadays' music industry, his playing reflects exactly that. Such a degree of sincerity has not been present in the concert hall for many generations now, and I believe he will leave a monumental mark on the musical world, if given the chance to do so. For what he has to offer is a gift of a century.”

It seems that the chance, Gamzou is mentioning, is approaching now! See also the video clip of Abas’s performance of the Mozart concerto No. 23 under the baton of Zubin Mehta at age 12, and the recently recorded performance with Yoel Gamzou in Berlin.

This is Abas' new release of works by Chopin and Yedidia on the Ulricht label 2012 This article is based on the article published by Staccato (Photos of Elisha Abas courtesy of Elisha Abas) at PianoNews  on 3-1-13 by Ilona Oltuski



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