The Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, with its historic Steinway grand piano, seems custom-made for classical Salons of the kind in which Israeli pianist Elisha Abas specializes. As an eleven-year-old prodigy, Abas performed at Carnegie Hall and was showered with praise and attention by the renowned pianist Arthur Rubinstein, who gave the boy a gold Rolex engraved with a personal note: “Elisha—Good luck. Arthur Rubinstein.” More than 30 years later, Abas still wears the watch. The story is an important one in his career, revealing the depths of his talents, yet also the pressure to which musically gifted children are so often subjected. A New York Times critic wrote of Abas’s Carnegie Hall debut “one hopes that he will be allowed his remaining years of childhood and not pushed too far too quickly.”
And so the story goes: Elisha Abas, a child destined for classical music stardom, turned his back on piano at the age of 14 in favor of playing soccer. He did so professionally through his 20s. Great-grandson of Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, mentored by Rubinstein, and having performed with the likes of Zubin Mehta and Isaac Stern, there is much in Abas’s personal history that can be called “illustrious.” Yet, due in large part to his hiatus from the piano, that illustriousness has been tempered by what is, now, Abas’s more intimate approach to musical performance. Motivated by what he calls “an inner voice, calling me back to my music again,” he returned to performance in 2004, and has played concert halls in Israel, Russia, Germany, and the United States, with piano concertos by Brahms and Mozart, and much of the Chopin repertoire, among his signatures. In June of this year he performed Aram Khachaturian’s rarely heard piano concerto with the Miami Symphony; the Miami Herald described Abas’s ability to evoke “the exotic touches of Asian influence in a European form, taking his time to draw out the tensions in the work’s sinewy melodic lines.” But perhaps seeking the low profile that made him step away from music in the first place, he also performs in unexpected venues for a classical musician: Le Poisson Rouge or Symphony Space in New York, and numerous locales in Havana, Cuba (he has an affection for cigars, regular props in his publicity photos). The Kleinert/James, acoustically grand but spatially intimate, is a hybrid of the different kinds of spaces where Abas has performed.
Elisha Abas’s performance, at 8:30 pm on August 8, will have as its setting the exhibition Music in the Woods: One Hundred Years of Maverick Concerts, curated by Susana Torruella Leval. The exhibition, a partnership between Maverick Concerts, the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild, and the Woodstock Artists Association & Museum, celebrates the centennial of Woodstock’s beloved classical concert venue, the Maverick. 2015 is also, not coincidentally, the centennial of the death of Alexander Scriabin. “When I play his pieces,” Abas says of his great-grandfather, “my fingers almost lead their own way through the passages… as if I know the music already from within.” The program includes works by Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Schumann, and Scriabin.
Tickets are $20 general admission, or $18 for members of the Woodstock Byrdcliffe Guild.