Midfield Virtuoso Finds His Perfect Pitch

Elisha Abas played for years in the Israeli Premier League but when his football career was over he returned to his other great talent: the piano

Features Israel Music
Like the ultra-shy former Manchester United midfielder Paul Scholes, he displays a form of ferocious, virtuosic reticence (©Lebrecht Music and Arts)

Another day has gone by and the island of Cyprus is no closer to reunion. The north was invaded by the Turkish army 39 years ago, driving out 200,000 Greeks and perpetuating an illegal occupation that somehow escapes the world’s attention. Greek Cyprus this year was hit by a second disaster, a Euro bank raid that drained the life savings of ordinary citizens and precipitated economic depression. The Pharos chamber music festival I am here to attend is going ahead only because the artists are playing for free and a Russian bank is paying the rent.

On a forlorn street that hugs the frontline, a former shoe factory has been privately converted into a recital space. Inside, the audience sits in a semi-circle, arena fashion, around and above the performers. The place is packed tonight, with extra chairs dragged in from other venues and more than a hundred ticketless customers turned away at the door. It’s a big night in Nicosia, the debut of a much discussed pianist with a peculiar pedigree.

Elisha Abas, 41, is a descendant of Alexander Scriabin, the mystic Russian composer who believed he was the Messiah and died of a mystery bug in 1915, leaving behind five symphonies and a never-ending drama. Scriabin’s eldest daughter Ariadna moved to France, converted to Judaism, fought for the resistance in an armée Juive against the Nazis and was shot dead in an ambush in 1944; she was Elisha’s maternal great-grandmother. Her brother, Julian, a boy composer, drowned at the age of 11. A cousin, Vyacheslav Scriabin, changed his surname to Molotov and became Stalin’s trusted hatchet-man. Not many musicians have a composer, a war heroine and a mass murderer in their bloodline. In an age obsessed with celebrity, Elisha Abas has enough snaps in his family scrapbooks to keep him perpetually in headlines.

The family history pales, however, beside his personal story. As a child of four, Elisha was told he had a unique talent. Leonard Bernstein embraced him, Isaac Stern invited him to New York, Arthur Rubinstein predicted a glittering future. Elisha’s father, Shlomo, gave up his job in Jerusalem to move the family to Hod Hasharon, close to the exacting teacher Pnina Salzman. For ten years, Shlomo took Elisha to lessons, while developing a second life of his own as Israel’s best-selling children’s writer. 

After lessons, Shlomo would take Elisha into the garden to kick a ball. One day, Elisha said he didn’t want to be a pianist any more. He was going to be a professional footballer. “I hated the atmosphere around concerts,” he tells me, “the snobbery, the expectation. My teacher used to say, there are two kinds of happiness. When you get asked to play a concert. And when it’s cancelled. She was right.”

Through his late teens and twenties, Elisha Abas played football in the Israeli Premier League. He was signed for Hapoel Petah Tikvah by Avram Grant, future manager of Chelsea. “Avram never gave me a game,” he shrugs. After a season in the reserves, he moved to Hapoel Kfar Saba. “I was a striker, but I never scored.” They tried him in midfield. Then he moved as a right-back to Hapoel Nazareth, a team composed of Galilean Arabs, Christian and Muslim. “My brothers,” Elisha calls them. 

Nobody in Nazareth knew he had been a classical pianist. And, if they knew, who cared? Football society is as consuming and self-enclosed as the concert world, a blinkered routine of daily practice and weekly high performance in the public eye. Two failures can finish you off. In either pressure cooker, there is no place to hide. 

Elisha married, settled down, played well. Then doubt set in. What would he do when the sporting life was over? In his spare time, he sat for a law degree. The longer it took, the more lost he felt. One night, after 15 years’ silence, he phoned his piano teacher. Having strayed farther from the music crucible than any prodigy before him, Elisha had decided to find his way back.

“I called Pnina at 11 o’clock at night,” he relates. We are sitting at a taverna table in the middle of a village square in Kouklios, where Richard the Lionheart rested on his way to the Crusades. He and I had been talking, on and off, for several days and Elisha is slowly shedding an intense shyness. A tweet beeps on my phone informing me that he has a recital in New York next month. 

“So I called Pnina,” he continues, “and I said, I want to talk. She said, come round. Now. So we talked, drank tea, smoked cigarettes. I didn’t know what to do next.”

Salzman, Palestine-born, had confined her career to Israel after a beloved brother was killed in its war of independence. A prize-winning student of the French master Alfred Cortot, she played more concertos with the Israel Philharmonic than any other soloist and was known as “Israel’s first lady of the piano”, a national treasure in her seventies. “I started taking her on dates,” grins Elisha. “I took her to the movies, to restaurants. We talked. One evening she said to me, come to Tel Hai.”

Tel Hai is an international summer course in the Galilee. At the opening event, Elisha heard a student, 17 years old, play the Tchaikovsky B-flat minor concerto. Smitten, he took her out for a walk. “She was a troubled person, her brother had died.” All night long, they shared dreams and sorrows. “We went to her room and lay at right angles on two beds, head to head, talking, talking. In the morning I said to her, you are going to marry my brother. She did. They are together still today.”

His tone is flat, matter-of-fact. The paranormal seems to run parallel in his perception with the normal. He is, by any measure, hypersensitive. I am tempted to ascribe his ESP to Scriabin mysticism, a theory that Elisha is quick to dismiss when I ask him, in front of TV cameras, if he grew up with the ancestor’s portrait on the table as he ate breakfast. “There are two answers to that question,” he replies. “I knew about him and I didn’t know. It was all so long ago. What did it have to do with me?”

We are about to find out. Few in the shoe factory have heard him play before. He strides into the room, sits at the Steinway grand, adjusts the stool and pitches head-first into a set of Chopin mazurkas — literally head-first, so close is his focus on the keyboard, shutting out the audience which is barely a forearm’s-length away. He is, as they say in sports commentary, in the zone.

The mazurkas, which sounded winsome and playful at Rubinstein’s hands, turn dark and ominous, as deadly serious as life itself. When the set ends, Elisha barely acknowledges the applause before addressing a Schumann sequence, followed, without interruption, by the Liszt Funérailles. As that sombre piece nears fade-out, a muezzin shouts the call for evening prayers from the Turkish mosque just across the concrete wall. Most artists would flinch at the interruption. Elisha is so deep in the zone that his face remains impassive as he drives the piece to its climactic hush. 

I cannot compare him to any pianist you will recognise. At once captivating and withholding, he makes no obvious attempt to engage the audience and yet grips the attention throughout. He imposes no flashiness on the music, yet his interpretation is altogether personal and, in places, profound. He plays, it appears, for himself, without regard for applause. The sole analogy that springs to mind, watching him coiled at the keyboard, immersed in his work, is with Paul Scholes, the ultra-shy former Manchester United midfielder who, when he scored a goal, would appear embarrassed by the fuss, eager to disappear. Elisha Abas represents a similar form of ferocious, virtuosic reticence. Called back for encores, he pauses to address the audience. The pause is a long one. Finally he says, “Good evening.” And that’s it.

Watching him listen to music when others play is no less absorbing. Head in hands, he emits the keep-off concentration of a big cat on the hunt. He forms, at the festival, an unlikely friendship with Mahan Esfahani, an Iranian harpichordist.

“I want success,” Elisha tells me, one night in the back of a car, “of course I do. And I hope to achieve it. But I will not do what others do to get there. I must be myself.”

I tell him I don’t think he could be anything else. Never, in two centuries of organised sport and culture, has a major player crossed from one to the other, and back. Elisha Abas is a human bridge between two discrete forms of high performance. An artist of the highest calibre, he is the product of a family story of invention and betrayal, achievement and despair. At the piano, oblivious to the world, he seems to unite disparities of the cerebral and the spiritual, the spiritual and the physical, the physical and the political. On the island of Aphrodite, ripped down the middle by malice and obduracy, he gives a glimpse of the power of music to heal the gash within.