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A lad among lads

 

Israeli pianist Elisha Abas was in Cyprus for a concert recently. THEO PANAYIDES meets a musician who stands out for the fact he took time out from the profession to be a top flight football player
 

Bayern Munich won this year’s Champions League Final, with Arjen Robben scoring an 88th-minute winner. That may seem irrelevant to a profile of Elisha Abas, who is after all a world-famous pianist, yet at one point he admits – sitting in the backyard of the Shoe Factory in Nicosia, where he’s due to give a recital as part of the 13th International Chamber Music Festival organised by the Pharos Trust – that he’s probably more excited about the Champions League Final (still a couple of days away when we speak), especially the prospect of Robben winning a medal after being twice denied, than he is about his upcoming concert.

‘Well OK,’ you might think, ‘even a world-famous pianist is allowed to have a hobby’ – but football is more than a hobby, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that music is a difficult vocation. Elisha, now 41, started out as a child prodigy in his native Israel, winning prizes and plaudits (among his early mentors was the great Arthur Rubinstein) – but then, around the age of 14, he fell out of love with playing music. “At a certain point it depressed me. I didn’t want it anymore.” He gave up the piano and turned to more conventional teenage pursuits (like what? “Girls, first of all”) – then a few years later, still doing his National Service, became a professional football player, plying his trade in Israel’s first division. When Elisha looks at someone like Robben, it’s with more than a fan’s casual eye.

You can see him on YouTube (Elisha, not Arjen Robben), playing a Chopin mazurka with delicate restraint, and struggle to reconcile that image with the rough-and-tumble of a football pitch – yet Elisha himself is keen to underline his credentials as a lad among lads. “I was a very regular child, always,” he insists – then later: “I grew up in a very, very regular neighbourhood,” the kind where the local kids gathered every afternoon to hang out and play football. Weren’t they impressed by his piano-playing exploits? “Nobody cared about things like that,” he replies. “People cared if you were, like, fun to be with”. He pauses, unsure how to phrase it in English: “I was one of the leaders, but not because of me playing the piano. [But] because I was kind of a wild boy.”

You can sense that wildness now, beneath the neatly cropped hair and neatly trimmed beard, behind the soft brown eyes and brow furrowed with wrinkles. Not violence, necessarily, but wildness, an untamed quality, a willingness to follow things (whether music, or our conversation, or Life itself) wherever they may take him. He comes off as a man who wouldn’t turn down a dare, or back out of a bar-brawl. He’s certainly no shrinking violet, as when I ask if he felt any guilt as a 14-year-old when he told his parents that he wanted to quit music. No guilt, he replies: “I was a strong child”. His daughter’s nearly 14 now, he adds (he has two children), “this is approximately the age when I quit, and I was much more mature than her, and I was much more strong”. Elisha Abas doesn’t do false modesty, or play down his gifts: “I’m not like anybody else,” he says simply when I ask if it’s harder as an adult, now that he’s just another fine pianist among fine pianists.

Still, a gifted child has a very special charm in the world of music – and it’s also true that Elisha’s father (Shlomo Abas, a well-known writer of children’s books) had invested a lot in his son’s burgeoning career. Very few child prodigies have the temerity to quit in their teens. Elisha, the oldest of four kids, admits to having had an “intense” relationship with his father – though he also repudiates a New York Times profile from a couple of years ago (there’s a link on his Wikipedia page) that made their relationship sound like something from the movie Shine.

His dad “imposed a rigid five-hour-a-day practice schedule, demanded perfection and struck him for misbehaving,” wrote Daniel J Wakin in that article. In fact, claims Elisha now, their conflict was “like any other child that needs to do something in a very disciplined way” (though it’s true he practised five hours a day, two in the morning before school then another three in the afternoon). Yes, there was drama, but “this is my personality – I’m a fire person, so sometimes I was a little bit…” He shrugs: “My temperament is like that. But I think it’s a healthy thing”. Shlomo finally accepted his son’s decision, and supported him later, though – being a storyteller – he also told young Elisha a story, the story of a king who decided to give up his kingdom. Years later, went the story, the king began to miss his old kingdom and decided to return, just to visit and pick some flowers – only to discover that he wasn’t allowed to pick even a single flower. The moral of the story is obvious: Give up music if you want – but know that you can never come back.

“But your father was wrong!” I sputter. “He was wrong,” agrees Elisha – yet his father also had a point, because the years without music (especially after he stopped playing football in his late 20s) were difficult years, a time when Elisha felt a lack of something gnawing at his being. “My heart was very closed for many years,” is the way he puts it.

He did different things in those years. He completed a Law degree. He trained dogs – not necessarily fighting dogs but certainly dogs that were trained to attack (he wore a padded ‘bite suit’ and everything). He did a lot of fishing, studied a lot of philosophy, got into Zen for a while, started doing yoga (which he still does every day) – but what he really needed was to start playing music again. So why didn’t he? “I didn’t know that’s what I wanted to do!” he explains. “I was numb. That’s the word. I didn’t know what I was missing”. Life just felt wrong. “Everyone needs to have inspiration in life. You need to feel your heartbeat. I didn’t feel my heartbeat, so I thought that’s the way your heartbeat should feel”.

Two events conspired to open Elisha’s heart. The first, unexpectedly, came when his car was stolen and the insurance company gave him a replacement car for three weeks. “In those days,” he recalls, “I didn’t even listen to classical music”. His old car had a CD player on which he listened to the music that he loved, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd and The Beatles; all those are great, and he still loves them now – but the temporary car, being older, didn’t have a CD player, just a tape deck for cassettes. Looking around for something to listen to, Elisha found an old cassette of a Brahms concerto, put it on out of necessity – “and it hit me. I felt it right away, and I started listening. For three weeks I listened to the same concerto, every time I drove. And I drive a lot!”.

The second event came a little later, when he visited a class run by his old piano teacher – the very well-known Pnina Salzman – at a kibbutz in northern Israel and met a “beautiful soul”, an 18-year-old girl who was studying the piano. He heard her playing Tchaikovsky, then caught her staring at him. At first he thought she might’ve recognised him from his football days – but in fact she’d listened to Elisha’s childhood recordings through Ms Salzman, and been very moved. “We spent all afternoon, all night, after midnight talking,” he recalls. She was grief-stricken, having just lost her brother; she found something she needed in him, and he in her. “Something about her was so open that it opened my heart, and I felt compassion and love – not romantic love, but as a daughter – at this moment. It completed the process for me, and in that moment I knew that I wanted to play again”. The fruit was ripe, the comeback ready to happen. The girl, meanwhile, ended up marrying his brother, and they have three children.

And so the story comes full circle, Elisha having finally returned to his difficult vocation. Is this unusual, I ask, for a musician to quit then come back years later? “Very rare,” he confirms – then again, he’s a very special case (like I said, he’s no shrinking violet): “I’m not like any other pianist,” he insists, “because I have the capacity to connect in my playing with the audience”. He prides himself on relying more on instinct than technique. “Thank God I’m not too much educated about music. And I was not ruined by the years of getting into a certain way of being a musician, and of ‘that’s how it should be’.” He’s never been to music school, never lost that connection to what he calls “your basic instincts as a kid”. Music may be in his genes: his great-grandfather on his mother’s side was the famous Russian composer Alexander Scriabin.

Music is a tightrope, says Elisha Abas, and technique is the safety-net. Too much technique makes you “conscious”, and that’s wrong because you have to be unconscious – in control, obviously, yet also unconscious. You have to be “light”, as he puts it. It’s exactly like football, where “the greatest players are the ones that are really calm and light in the most difficult situations”. Arjen Robben wasn’t light when he missed a penalty in last year’s Champions League Final; he was thinking too much about the ground below, and fell off the tightrope.

Does this lightness come naturally? Or does he have to find it every time? “You have to lift yourself to a certain point that you start to glide,” he explains. He has his own techniques for doing this. For instance, on the day of a concert he does nothing else, freeing himself from all distractions – “and I also do everything slow. Everything I do, I do half-speed”, like a freediver slowing down his metabolism in order to dive deeper. “I must say, I’ll be honest, that it doesn’t always work.”

Really? He has bad concerts?

“I cannot be bad,” he replies with his usual forthrightness. “Because I am – real. When you’re real, you cannot be bad”. But the tightrope is wider on a bad day; it becomes safer, therefore less spectacular. The music still soars – but he’s consciously flying, which is not the same as gliding.

“I think there is no separation between the artist and the human being,” says Elisha Abas. “It’s all what you carry – all your spirit, all your soul, all your background, childhood, everything that all together makes you who you are”. His life, like his art, has been a process of plunging headlong, running on instinct, going where his feelings would carry him – letting go of music when his heart was no longer in it, feeling his heart contract and go numb in those difficult years, then the opening and blossoming of his second wind, his comeback.

In the end, perhaps, it comes down to simplicity – but a hard-fought simplicity, the gift of seeing magic in simplicity. He took a stroll in Nicosia this afternoon, he muses, and saw a group of people playing sheshbesh [backgammon] – “like, nice people, one with a moustache, one old guy. They have some kind of moment together. And I watched them, and it gives me a warm feeling”. It’s the same with music: “The beauty of music is the simplicity. You have to come to a concert, I always say, with your heart. You can leave your head at home. You don’t have to analyse nothing, you don’t have to think – you have to feel it”. Then we smile and shake hands and he goes back inside, thinking of Brahms and Arjen Robben.

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