Scaling the heights once more
Elisha Abas has done the impossible: He descended from the peak of the classical music scene in New York and Europe, to the mediocre ranks of the Israeli soccer world - and came back again.
Fifteen years passed between the Israeli article that described how an 11-year-old boy, Elisha Abas, played the piano at Carnegie Hall with composer-pianist-conductor Leonard Bernstein - a performance that moved violinist Isaac Stern to tears - and a report in the same newspaper about a right back, who played on several soccer teams, including Maccabi Ahi Nazareth, sent off the field for a foul. His name was also Elisha Abas.
Less than 10 years later, the name has surfaced again, this time in The New York Times, in a story about a piano recital that Abas just gave, once again at Carnegie Hall. Could it be that the same person has achieved what no other man has before - that is, wandered from the zenith of the classical music scene in New York and the capitals of Europe, to the mediocre ranks of the Israeli soccer world, and back again? The answer, it seems, is yes.
Only someone who watches the film of young, Jerusalem-born Elisha Abas playing the slow movement from Mozart's Concerto in C Major can grasp his uniqueness as a child prodigy. The Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra sits on the stage. Twelve-year-old Abas performs, all shyness and simplicity, radiating a sense of calm and natural confidence; his playing, under conductor Zubin Mehta, reflects this impression, a performance that is the essence of emotion, imaginative in its approach to tempo and rhythm, with an endlessly gentle pianissimo and crisp technical accuracy.
Listening to this child and watching him for just a minute stirs up great excitement. His teacher, Pnina Salzman, once conducted an experiment in which she played a tape of Abas to her colleagues and asked them to guess the identity of the player. The names they suggested were all of the world's most illustrious pianists.
It took many months of persistent effort before Elisha's father, children's author Shlomo Abas, could convince Salzman to hear his son play. She, who had previously been reluctant to teach child prodigies, lavished all of her gifts on him, accompanied him to concerts around the world and formed a strong bond with him as if he were a member of her own family. Abas won multiple awards from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, gave recitals in America and Europe, and reaped accolades from leading international musicians, most prominently from pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who wanted to send Abas to study with Emil Gilels, perhaps the greatest pianist of his time. All this indicated a rare promise. But one day, when he was 14, Elisha Abas left.
"[Performing on the piano] wasn't cut off in one day, but rather died out by itself," Abas said in an interview at the height of his soccer career. "What I remember is a lasting sense of satiety, a feeling that from here I had nowhere left to climb, nothing left to prove. And there was no pressure involved, because no one leaned on me too hard, not Pnina Salzman and not my parents. The whole thing simply did not interest me anymore."
"I sat with him at the piano every day, because he found it boring to sit alone. I didn't know what a musical note looked like, and I learned while he practiced," his mother, Ariane Abas, now says.
Was he under strict supervision?
Ariane Abas: "Yes. Shlomo, his father, made sure that he kept to the number of practice hours and did his exercises, but when practice was over he was a wonderful father, fun, not strict at all. He was with the other kids every day, during the long hours that I spent sitting with Elisha, or when I took him to his lessons, sometimes nursing Elisha's baby brother while I waited."
Were you strict, too?
"Actually I was the one who softened things a bit. I let him take breaks."
And when he announced that he was leaving, were you horrified? Or glad?
"I was glad, because it was his choice, and he knew how to trust himself. He left the piano out of choice, just like he chose to go back to it 20 years later, and the most beautiful things are those done by choice. Neither his leaving nor his return were done for me or for his father."
'A new phase'
Now residing in New York, where he moved a few months ago to launch his piano career, Elisha Abas sounds calm.
How did it feel to be on stage, the moment before the first note was played, with the burden of having abandoned it for so many years?
Elisha Abas: "I felt the way I always did. Everyone was a bit more excited than me. It was natural for me, although there was a slightly strange moment just before I went up to play. Aside from the usual anxiety about the audience, which ends the moment you begin to play, I had the clear feeling that I was closing something off and beginning a new phase. I thought about Pnina, who would have been very proud if she had been alive and could have been there with me."
When, exactly, did you decide to make your return?
"I didn't want to return, and I didn't think about it at all. But four years ago I was out with my wife, we were driving in the car, and I suddenly found myself thinking about Pnina, for no special reason. I called her. It was 10:30 at night, and I said, this is Elisha speaking. And she asked, 'What do you want?' because she thought it was someone else with the same name. I said, Elisha Abas. I want to see you, when can I? And she said, come now.
"So I bought a pack of cigarettes, because she loves to smoke, and we sat and talked as though we'd only parted yesterday, as though all those years had not passed, and we reconnected. Then I went to visit her at the Tel Hai workshops, where she was teaching at the time. I didn't participate, of course. I just sat in the audience and met a young student of hers, Inbar Rothschild. She and I strolled around a bit that evening and came to a building with a room and a piano, and she asked if I would mind playing for her. I said okay, and I played, and she came up and hugged and kissed me in a gesture of friendship. She embodied the warmth of an audience, which at that moment made me decide that I was going back."
Inbar Rothschild studied with Pnina Salzman for eight years, until the latter passed away last December. "At the course in Tel Hai, Elisha was sitting in the audience with his wife, and Pnina introduced us," she recounts. "It took a long time before I figured out who this old student of hers was. Then we started walking around and talking, and he told me he did not know anyone there, and somehow I ended up pouring my heart out to him. Later I found out that I was not the first person to cry freely around him; everyone he meets opens up to him.
"While strolling we came to the music center and saw an available room with a piano. He played a Chopin nocturne that he had played as a child. It was a very special experience, one that I had never had before. He probably hadn't touched a piano in 15 years and, professionally speaking, he was completely unpolished, like a child with the strength of a grown man, which he apparently could not control. But something about the sound, and the heart, remained perfect. I did not know what to do, so I went up to him and hugged him, just like that, and we became friends."
How old were you?
Rothschild: "Not yet 20."
And did you hear him play again later?
"Yes, and his playing is always moving. People don't play like that anymore, with that depth of soul. And if someone tried to play like he does, with all those games of tempo and with the pedal, they would say that it wasn't serious. For him it's natural, a rare talent that he still has from childhood, [with] a sense of rhythm that no one else has. His playing is completely personal: It feels as though you and he are alone in the room."
"After playing for Inbar, I talked to Pnina and told her that I wanted to go back, not to piano lessons but to the stage, and we began to work in earnest," Abas says. For four years now he has devoted himself completely to strenuous practice, every day for hours, with the complete support of his family.
"I told him, just because no one has done it before you it does not meant that it's impossible to do," says his mother, Ariane. "There are always trailblazers, unusual people who do not have a role model to follow. That was my 'blessing for the road.'"
And do you believe that he will succeed in this impossible professional world?
Ariane Abas: "I have no doubt that he will, and I never doubted it for a moment."
"Pnina was concerned," recalls Rothschild. "She worried about another crisis, like the one he had when he was a child, only now he has a family of his own and can't afford it. She had a special regard for him; she saved his drawings from the time he was five years old, and she always had his photograph on her desk, only his, of all her students. And when he came back, she said to him, 'You see, you've been here in front of me, all these years.'"
"After I returned, I never left Pnina's side," Abas says. "I was sorry for every hour that I did not spend drawing from this wellspring of spirit and music. It was only after she died that I decided to go to New York and begin performing. And at the concert this week, the audience gave a standing ovation, not only at the end of the concert, but at the intermission, and when I came back from the intermission they also stood up. And you should see what is happening, endless emails, invitations to play in New York, in Houston, at the United Nations. Every few minutes something happens."
And while you were actually playing, did you feel any echo from your childhood? Was it Elisha the boy, or you, Elisha the adult?
Elisha Abas: "Definitely not 'Elisha the adult. There will never be any such thing, and besides, there never was an 'Elisha the boy.' Even then I didn't play like a child, I played freely, and that's how I play now. I've never understood the concept of 'mature playing.' What does that mean? There is only one kind of playing, the real kind. I believe that music comes from the heart to the heart, not from the brain to the brain. That is apparently why I have such a strong understanding with the audience."