Eli Magen

Double Bass

Eli Magen, singer, jazz musician, but more than anything – classical music musician at the IPO for over 40 years. Not only is he an accomplished classical double bass player but also a singer, bass guitarist, electric and acoustic guitarist and pianist. Learn about the less known sides of this talented musician.

Is there a conflict between your being a classical music player and jazz musician and singer?

I do feel a contradiction between the two, rather completion.

It is more customary nowadays that musicians play classical and jazz music. Not all of them. Some have the skill to combine the two and some do not. It depends, partly, on the education and what one absorbs in his youth. People who play an instrument such as violin from very early age have no connection to light music or jazz.

Describe your musical development

Magen says that his musical development is contrary to customary. He began playing the violin at 7, which lasted 3 years only, when he got caught escaping classes. Later on he decided that he wanted to sing. So, he learned to play the guitar and accompany his singing.

“Since the age of 14-15, my musical development was in the light music domain. When I finished my military service I turned to rock-n-roll music and only later, at 23-24 years old, I began listening to jazz. At this point I decided to go to the United States to study music seriously and play jazz.

Magen’s trip to Berklee College of Music (Boston, USA) caused disappointment to his school teachers, especially his double bass teacher. “I found a teacher who taught a little in almost every music school in America, Homer Mensch (Juilliard, Yale, Manhattan School). When I began to study with him he had started to teach at Mannes (a classical music school). The registration to Mannes was Mensch’s idea. He said that I might receive a scholarship, and so it was.”

When did you decide that your main musical vocation was classical music?

It happened while Magen was staying in the US. “I arrived to America after playing at the Hassidic Music Festival, with which we went on a worldwide concert tour. When we arrived to New York I went to an Eddie Gomez (one of the greatest jazz bassists) performance. After the show I approached him humbly. After we talked he agreed to teach me and even gave me his phone number. When I graduated from Berklee I began studying with him.”

Though it was the jazz music Magen loved, after realizing that a jazz artist’s life did not suit him, he turned to classical music. “I loved classical music as well as the playing in an orchestra. In Mannes I played First Bass. Towards the end of my studies I realized that classical music would be my main occupation, alongside jazz playing.”

“Being accepted to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra was an important goal for me. When I studied at Mannes, I had to work as well, to support my family, so I worked each day till late at night. The effort made this goal very important to me. I did not come for the money, I came for the music. I always wanted to achieve my heart’s wish. When I was accepted to the IPO it was a fulfillment of something that had been building inside me during all those years in America, in difficult conditions, and it was very exciting for me.”

Why did you choose the IPO as your main stay?

There is nothing better. This is the best orchestra in Israel ever. I never thought of another alternative. I began playing with the IPO in 1983 at the age of 35.

Can you remember your audition?

The audition turned out to be especially traumatic. I had a small bass that I bought from my teacher. On this bass I played and practiced for the audition. Since I had just arrived from America I carried it with me on the plane, and after landing I put it on the suitcases cart in order to gather my other belongings. The bass fell on the floor. When I got home I saw that a great part of the bass’s front had crushed in and it could not be played.

Peter Marck, an IPO bassist, lent me his instrument but this was a big bass (Gagliano, with high strings), the opposite of what I practiced on. Peter agreed to lend it to me but in those days he played with it endlessly. I had only 4-5 days left to practice on Peter’s bass. Each evening, after a concert, I stayed behind to practice. The hardship was immense and I almost broke my fingers on the bass. I was desperate and certain that I would not pass the audition.”

Magen’s desperation caused him to give up piano accompaniment in a designated part of the audition. After he concluded the test he returned home and waited for the results. To his great surprise, the IPO representative called him and requested him to return and he was admitted as member of the orchestra.

“The excitement was great. It was something I had been waiting on for a long time. Because I was admitted, we returned to live in Israel. We would not have returned if I had not been admitted.”

Which do you prefer – solo playing or an orchestra?

I love both. On one hand, I love the sound, the roles and the orchestral music. The joint playing with 6-7 double bass player with you, when they all sound as one, it’s an amazing feelings. On the other hand, when I play solo the responsibility is solely mine and the satisfaction is different. Your influence is greater.

There were times when I performed as soloist but it was very hard. You need another instrument, other arrangement for it, a different state of mind and practice differently. Maybe that’s why I started playing at an older age. It stresses me mentally.

Please talk about a special experience with the IPO

I remember very significant concerts with Bernstein. I loved playing with him. Bernstein was a great music interpreter and I always felt that through watching him I learned how to play. He was so wise. He knew to express his wishes with 2-3 sentences. Among conductors there are some who always stop. It is tiring because after their explanations you are no longer concentrated and do not know what they want. Others give orders while conducting and do not stop, or stop and talk for 2 minutes and suddenly open a whole world for you.

Do you think that the IPO succeeds in representing Israel in its world tours?

I know that it represents Israel the best. We are ambassadors of good will and culture. All this, in spite of demonstrations against us all the time.

To read the complete interview, please click here.