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Jerusalem Diary: Monday 15 September

By Tim Franks
BBC News, Jerusalem

VERSATILE PERFORMER

Elisha Abas
Abas returned to the piano after 12 years as a professional footballer
I have never met a man as difficult to categorise as Elisha Abas. He was a child prodigy concert pianist. He burnt out. He became a professional footballer. Seven years ago he began re-building his career as a pianist, and now gives recitals around the world.

There have certainly been more famous musicians, who dabbled in sport: the tenor Placido Domingo and the violinist Nigel Kennedy have both enjoyed a kick-around with a ball.

There have been more famous football players, who ventured into what some might generously regard as music: you may recall, unless you have had the benefit of hypnotherapy, the England midfield maestros, Chris Waddle and Glen Hoddle, releasing Diamond Lights in 1987.

But I cannot think of anyone who achieved as much in both fields as Elisha Abas.

His first performance was at the age of five. Four years later, came his first broadcast on Israeli radio. At the age of eleven, he was playing concerts, with orchestras.

But he began to feel the pressure: Classical music is, as he says, "a perfectionist field".

He became neurotic, depressed. He was very sensitive to noise. He decided he did not want to perform any more. Then he stopped practising. And then he stopped playing altogether.

At the same time, he says, he was a "regular teenager". He liked sport. When he quit the stage, at the age of 15, he continued to play football.

"I have good physical abilities, and I have a very good discipline" - a discipline which, he says, he brought with him from the piano. Elisha insists he was not a talented footballer, but at the age of 18 "somehow I find myself as a professional".

He played for eight years in the top Israeli leagues. He began as a striker. "I was very good, very fast. But I never scored goals."

The coach moved him to midfield. "I was a very good midfielder, but I never did the right work."

He became a defender. "And there I find my peace. You don't need a lot of inspiration to be a right back."

Elisha drew heavily on a cigarette as we chatted, in the seats of the concert hall in Rishon LeZion.

Earlier in the morning, unlit cigarette clamped in mouth, he had run through his paces on the Steinway, centre-stage: a brief flash of Mozart, but mostly heavy, dark Romantic work, the left hand working itself into a blur of whirring, crashing octaves.

Elisha Abas in 1998
Abas playing in the Israeli league for Maccabi Achi Netseret in 1998
He said that his team-mates, in professional football, did not really know of his alter ego, as a sensitive interpreter of the great works of classical music.

"There was gossip here and there but I never talked about it. It was something that happened in the past."

And yet Elisha believes, intently, that there are deep links between his two lives.

"For me it's all life," he says. "In both, you have the spectrum of emotions."

Music can be as generous, brave and proud, as sad and as sensitive as sport.

"And you are a performer. You have an audience."

After he left professional football, at the age of 30, "an inner voice" called him back to the piano. He worked hard, despite the fact that - just as when he was a child - he disliked the hours of practice.

Two years ago, at the age of 35, he began to perform again. He has given recitals in New York and Italy.

Next month, he will play in Russia. He says he has kept his child-like love of performance. "It is a holy moment. I feel outside myself, but also very connected to myself. I don't know how to explain it, and I don't think I need to. It is what it is."

FIERCE PASSIONS TAMED

I bumped into Elisha again on Tuesday evening. We were catching the evening breeze outside the YMCA on King David Street.

It was the interval of one of the concerts in the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival.

It was the third concert of the two week-long festival that I was lucky enough to hear. The programming had been brilliant - varied but coherent; the playing, at times, stunning.

On Tuesday, the world premiere of a flute concerto by Elliott Carter was bookended with Schumann and Liszt song cycles. They were performed by Rolando Villazon, one of the world's greatest tenors. His accompanist was Daniel Barenboim.

The concert was the high-point of the festival, to mark the 75th anniversary of the YMCA in its present location.

Jerusalem wants for good 20th-century buildings. The YMCA is a handsome exception, described by those who know about these things as a blend of the Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and neo-Moorish.

But more important is what the building stands for. This is how the YMCA's website puts it:

"Field Marshal Edmund Lord Allenby, who had led the British conquest of the region, dedicated the new YMCA headquarters on April 18, 1933, with an address broadcast to listeners in Britain and the United States.

"'Here in Jerusalem,' he stated, 'city revered by all, in the heart of Palestine, a land which has been - from remote ages till recent years - the scene of almost incessant wars, is erected an international monument of peace and brotherhood. Under its shadow, jarring sectarians may cease from wrangling, fierce passions be tamed, and men's minds be drawn to loftier ideals.'"

On Tuesday evening, the music, the building, and the message all rang true.


Here is a selection of your comments:

Nice article. It's amazing how in such a small country we have such talented people. Not only Jews but Arab musicians as well have proven that Israel, amongst its turmoil and clashing of ignorance on both sides, has managed to create some of the world's best musicians. Although the media chooses not to highlight collaboration between Jews and Arabs, we have many musical and artistic projects that do just that. The Jerusalem Music Academy is a prime example, we have both Arab and Jewish students studying music under one roof and attending each other's concerts.
Shaul, Tel aviv, Israel

Dear Tim Franks, As a frequent visitor to Jerusalem, I thoroughly enjoy your Jerusalem Diary - musings about the local political situation and encounters with both sides....thank you!
Karina Vestergaard, Chiang Mai - Thailand

Only in Israel!
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