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Munich Philharmonic names Lahav Shani next chief conductor

February 1, 2023

With his appointment, the 34-year-old Israeli musician adds another top-notch orchestra to his portfolio. His predecessor, Valery Gergiev, was fired last year after failing to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Lahav Shani raises his hands against a blue stage
Lahav Shani will become chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic in 2026Image: Günther Pichlkostner/First Look/picturedesk.com/picture alliance

Lahav Shani will take over as chief conductor of the Munich Philharmonic, a leading German and international orchestra, starting September 2026. The announcement was made Wednesday morning by the mayor of Munich, Dieter Reiter, who underscored the freshness Shani would bring to the orchestra as one of the youngest chief conductors in the ensemble's history.

"Lahav Shani is a perfect fit for the Munich Philharmonic. The city orchestra, with its tradition and renown, has been rejuvenated and is awakening a new excitement for classical music," Reiter said.

Shani's appointment was decided by the Munich City Council on the recommendation of the orchestra. He was present in the southern German city to sign the contract. 

"I met the orchestra just last year for the first time, and the relationship was immediately very strong and very promising for the future, and so it's a big promise, and I'm so much looking forward to the next years," he said in a video posted to his Instagram account and the Munich Philharmonic's Twitter account following the signing.

The appointment comes roughly one year after Shani's predecessor, the prominent 69-year-old Russian conductor Valery Gergiev, was dismissed for failing to denounce the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He has maintained close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin for years. 

Lahav Shani: Conductor, pianist, bassist

With Shani, the Munich Philharmonic has acquired a musical star who has appeared with top international ensembles, not just as a conductor, but also as a pianist and a bassist. 

Born in Tel Aviv in 1989, Shani was immersed in classical music from a young age. "My father was a choir conductor, and music was always part of my life. I grew up with it. At home, on video tapes, and my father would take me to rehearsals and performances by the Israel Philharmonic," he said in an interview for the London Symphony Orchestra blog.

Lahav Shani sits at a piano
Shani, also a pianist, has performed as a soloist while conducting from the piano bench at the same timeImage: Marco Borggreve

He began studying piano at age 6 and at 18 he soloed with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra under the ensemble's long-term music director Zubin Mehta. He maintained strong ties to the orchestra, performing as a pianist and bassist with the ensemble, appearing as a regular guest conductor every year from 2013 and in 2020, eventually taking over from Mehta as music director in 2020. 

A multi-talented musician, Shani's initial focus wasn't on conducting but on performing as an instrumentalist.

"Then I was more and more attracted to the idea of making musical decisions, leading the orchestra in a certain way that I thought was the right way for me, very subjective," he told US public radio station WRTI.

Shani pursued conducting studies alongside piano in Berlin, where he was mentored by Argentine-Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

His conducting breakthrough came in 2013, when he won the Gustav Mahler Conducting Competition in Bamberg, a prestigious international competition that has helped launch the careers of top conductors such asGustavo Dudamel, Oksana Lyniv and Shi-Yeon Sung.

In 2018, he was appointed chief conductor of the Rotterdam Philharmonic at age 27, making him the youngest person ever to hold the position. 

Age doesn't matter

The classical music world is one in which top musicians can maintain prominent, active careers well into their 70s, 80s, or even beyond. Musicians up through their 40s are often referred to as "young" or "emerging" sometimes despite having years of professional experience under their belts. 

At 34, Shani has already led some of the most prestigious orchestras, including the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra and  Amsterdam's Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. Announcing his appointment, the Munich Philharmonic leadership described it as a "generational change." 

Lahav Shani
At 34, Shani has conducted leading orchestras around the worldImage: Marco Borggreve

Shani has maintained that it is not age but rather the connection between an orchestra and the conductor that determines the potential for working well together.

"You can have a very young conductor coming to a great orchestra, and it will work  as it did in our case," he said of his relationship with the Rotterdam Philharmonic in a 2022 interview with Bachtrack. "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."

Shani will stop leading the Dutch ensemble when his contract expires in 2026 just in time to take up the reins at the Munich Philharmonic. His initial term as chief conductor of the Bavarian ensemble will last five years. 

Disclosure: The author of this article was employed by Shani's management agency in 2016.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier

DW author Cristina Burack.
Cristina Burack Editor and reporter focusing on culture, politics and history