Israeli-American clarinetist Eli Eban has had an association with Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto since he first heard a recording of it at the age of 12. Some 40 performances and many decades later, Eban returns to the concerto once again Saturday, Nov. 17, for a performance with the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra, where he has been principal clarinet for 20 years. Eban also divides his time between teaching at IU Bloomington's Jacobs School of Music and performing with the Israel Camerata Jerusalem.
This week I talked to Eban in anticipation of his performance, working with conductors, the benefits of teaching, and growing up in Israel, where several world-renowned classical musicians of his caliber have been produced. Following are some highlights:
NUVO: You have played the Mozart concerto many times. When did you first learn it?
ELI EBAN: I learned it as a young boy; it’s the piece that I most played growing up, and of course over the years one has to relearn it. And I’m still relearning it; it’s a work of infinite depth. Every clarinetist feels a sense of responsibility toward the piece as one of Mozart’s last works—his greatest wind concerto and his last instrumental concerto—to do the due diligence and give it an honest feel every time we play it.
It’s a matter of looking at the score again and building an interpretation as if it’s the first time. Experience plays into it, of course, but to give it a fresh view. In a way it’s like an actor going over their lines even though they may have gone thousands of times, and thinking about the character while doing so.
NUVO: And it has an interesting history: Mozart originally intended the piece to be written for basset horn, but eventually was convinced the piece would be more effective for clarinet.
EBAN: It was conceived for basset horn in the key of G, and there’s just a fragment surviving for that instrument. Mozart, apparently in his consultation with [clarinetist Anton] Stadler, moved it to A major to a slightly different instrument that is called a basset clarinet. It’s somewhere between a basset horn and the slightly shorter A clarinet. The manuscript of that has been lost, so we don’t really know what Mozart’s intentions were, but looking at the performance parts of the period and experiencing other works of Mozart’s, there’s a pretty strong conviction that the basset clarinet in fact did exist at the time. I’m going to play it on the modern clarinet. It’s missing two notes on the bass, but I think one gains power, projection, and focus on this particular clarinet. Mozart would have been delighted with either version, I think.
NUVO: You’ve performed with some of the best conductors of the 20th century, since being appointed by Zubin Mehta to join the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in the mid-1970s. What have you come to expect from a conductor, especially when you play a piece that you know inside out like the Mozart concerto?
EBAN: I did have the honor of playing this with Zubin Mehta, with the Israel Philharmonic. Maestro Mehta was a great accompanist, extremely intuitive. I know that [ICO Music Director] Matthew Kramer will be the same. So I would say sensitivity, intuition—because not everything can be planned down to the last millisecond—and communication. It’s really more like playing chamber music with the conductor leading an orchestra that I would hope for, rather than pure accompaniment.
NUVO: You’ve been at Jacobs since 1990. What is your personal experience with teaching as far as the way that it makes you a better musician, if that’s the case?
EBAN: The kind of rethinking of everything from fundamentals all the way to advanced interpretation of a piece like the Mozart. In the dialogue with the students, it helps me refresh my own thinking. Sometimes I’ll tell a student “You know, I wouldn’t do that.” And then I go home and I say “Oh, gosh, I’ve been doing that too!” To a certain extent it serves as a little bit of a mirror, and it’s fascinating to see the musical and personal growth of young musicians, and to be able to contribute to that development.
NUVO: You were born in New York, but you received early training in Israel. Did you move there specifically to study music, or what were the circumstances?
EBAN: I was nine when my father [Israeli diplomat and author Abba Eban who died in 2002] was recalled to Israel. He was the ambassador, in the U.S., both to [the United Nations] and to the U.S. That’s how I came to be born in New York.
NUVO: When did you first pick up the clarinet?
EBAN: I played recorder as a kid, as children do [in Israel], and I showed kind of an affinity for that. I refused to play violin or piano because I thought they were too nerdy. One day when I was 12, I heard a record at a friend’s house—his father had a record player—and I was fascinated. I was transfixed by the sound of whatever it was, and I asked and he said “well, that’s the clarinet.” And it was the Mozart Clarinet Concerto, so I went home and I asked for a clarinet. Now I think I’m coming up on my 40th time of playing the piece.
NUVO: Obviously there have been many great classical musicians coming from Israel, such as Pinchas Zuckerman, Itzhak Perlman, Daniel Barenboim. What is it about the education and the culture in Israel that produces such great musicians?
EBAN: Going back to my generation, growing up in Israel, there was no television and life was very simple, even austere. When Israel was 10 or 15 year old as a state, still populated by many former refugees from Hitler’s Europe, they brought a great love of chamber music and subscribers to the Israel Philharmonic, which was and still is the center of cultural life in Israel. I grew up going downtown in a small town near Tel Aviv to a family of amateurs, who played violin and viola. That was a customary thing, the sort of European chamber music salon on a weekend or in an evening, and I think that culture ran very deep. It’s kind of what produced many interested young musicians, some of whom rose to greatness. Almost every child was expected to play an instrument as an elective or something to do after hours.
NUVO: You went to Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, so at what point did you move back to the U.S.?
EBAN: I served in the Israeli Army Band for three years and right after that I got into Curtis, to my great joy. My teacher in Israel had gone to Curtis, and he told me about the school and the musical culture there. Fortunately I got in, so from 1971 I spent four years at Curtis, and then I got a job with the Jerusalem Symphony and went back to Israel and stayed there until I came back to the States in 1989.