From Concert Pianist to Screenwriter and Playwright: Israela Margalit on Her Creative Life

After a successful international career as a concert pianist, Israela Margalit is now enjoying, in her words, “a life behind the camera.” Having started to write while still performing, she continues to receive recognition for her screenwriting, playwriting, and stories. For details about Margalit’s vast scope of work, please visit her website, mentioned at the end of this interview. 

I understand you spent the shutdown last year in creative mode and your show “Crossroads” is a product of that. Please tell us about it.

I was looking for something I could do from home. I stumbled upon other Zoom shows and thought that would be something I could work on. Everything I saw was about Covid and I wanted to do a show that had nothing to do with current events, a show that would bring people back to what they used to think about, like love and relationships. So, I searched through all my materials and put together six short plays that are all about relationships. I got in touch with my friend, John-Martin Green, who is a fabulous director and wonderful theatre person. He loved the concept and the materials and took over part of it. The most important question was how to create real theatre on Zoom. Until then, all the Zoom shows I saw were with actors talking to the camera, frontal acting. I wanted to create the feeling of communication, otherwise what’s the point? The actors were fantastic! So, we streamed Crossroads, and we had a very, very nice reaction. Later on, it was officially selected for the IndieX Film Festival in L.A. and became a semi-finalist in the short film category.

 Israela Margalit

Before your writing career took off, you were an acclaimed concert pianist who performed all over the world. Was that your dream as a child, to be a pianist? At what point did the love of words make itself known to you?

I always loved music but when I hit 15, all of a sudden music was everything. I rushed all my other studies, just so I could devote myself to music. For quite a few years, that’s the only thing I did: perfecting my technique and learning all this huge repertoire. I mean, when I started my career, I played 27 piano concertos. That’s what you need to do: you have to be so ready in order to make a career because at the beginning of your career, most of the time you jump into somebody else’s shoes. The first engagements are mostly because somebody’s sick. So, you know, you practice six hours a day and your mind is racing and racing because half the time the practice is technical. It’s like when you play tennis, you have to hit that corner a hundred times again and again. It’s the same with the piano: there are certain technical skills that you have to work on every day of your life. If you play, let’s say, a concerto by Rachmaninoff which has more than 30,000 notes… if you want to play them well, they have to be completely automatic; your fingers have to know what they’re doing. You practice them slower and faster; it’s a very mechanical work. 

The other half of the practice is artistic. The mechanical work gets to be boring after a while; you have to think about something. After some years, I found out that I had so many stories in my head, and I felt such a need to write them. I didn’t know which language to write in because my mother tongue was Hebrew, and as a concert pianist traveling all over the world, I lived in English and French and German, but I didn’t feel confident about writing in any language. Then, I was pregnant with my second child, my daughter, while my son was only three and a half, and traveling became a little difficult. I made a decision to stop my career on stage until the second child goes to school. My husband at the time, conductor Lorin Maazel, who was the father of my kids, was Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra so I raised my kids in Cleveland, which is a wonderful community. 

Staying at home with the kids, I had some extra time on my hands, so I went to college at Case Western Reserve University to catch up on all the stuff I never had the chance to learn. I took classes on philosophy and political science and literature. I had a political science professor, Marty Plax, who said: “everything in life is politics from the moment you’re born to the time you die; everything you do is politics.” He taught us political science through the analysis of Shakespeare plays; very interesting. I wrote a paper for him analyzing The Merchant of Venice as a gay story. When I got back my paper on the top he wrote: “A brilliant paper, but not fair to Shakespeare.” I didn’t even see the “not fair to Shakespeare” part, I just saw “a brilliant paper” and I said, okay, I can write in English. That was the beginning.

Israela Margalit and Peter Ustinov for whom she wrote four TV specials

Then, your writing career started with writing for television. How did that happen?

Sometimes you can’t plan your life, things just happen. When my daughter went to school, I started to play concerts again and had my first recital at Lincoln Center after six years of absence. One friend, an executive at ABC, invited Herbert Granath, who was at the time working on cable and who would later help create the A&E channel. Herbert met me after the concert to congratulate me and said the magical words: “Maybe we can do something together,” and he gave me his card. I’d been already working on an idea for a television show, so I called him. We met, he liked it and I was asked to write a script on spec. I spent the whole summer writing it and then met the producer, Curtis W. Davis, who was one of the most extraordinary people I ever met in my life, a great music person and personality. He taught me how to cut the script in half, then one thing led to another, and they decided to produce my show, Beethoven, the Prodigy, the Titan, which was a miracle. I play the piano in it. We had some wonderful musicians and actors. Then one day I started to write for the theater. I did something like 40 revisions on my first play; there was so much to learn.

 Israela Margalit before the opening of her play “Trio” in L.A. with the two male leads, Bjorn Johnson (left) who played Schumann and Jeremy Shranko who played Brahms

Music is in itself a language, and language has its own music. So much in performance has to do with pacing and rhythm. As a playwright, do you find any similarities between creating the narrative arc of a play and the dramatic arc of a concert? Do you think the fact that you are a musician has inspired you in writing, and especially writing for the theatre?

Yes, you’re hitting the nail on the head. That’s exactly what helped me write a play. Music gave me the sense of timing. Dramatically, it’s the same thing: you have to build your climaxes, you have to know what we call in music ‘the shtick.’ The shtick is when you have this one moment when you deviate. You deviate from the rhythm, from the form in order to do something very personal and special. But you can do it only once. And when you play chamber music, you have to choose who gets the shtick. Too much of it spoils the whole thing. It has to be a surprise and a special moment. If you do it twice, forget it, you ruined it, and it’s also not in good taste. So, this is similar in theatre. I got very lucky that a few people in my life gave me amazing advice how to start, how to control the rhythm, how to give up on some great words, what to throw out—that’s always a big decision. I work very hard on my plays. I love writing for the theatre.

 Israela Margalit with Maestro Leonard Bernstein

Was it easy for you to memorize concert scores?

Learning by memory is not that difficult because you practice a piece so much that it gets into your fingers and your mind. What is difficult is to go on stage and believe that you know the piece, believe that what you did at home yesterday is something you can do today on the stage. I know people who have zero memory problems in life but the moment they go on stage they get so scared. The trick is never to ask yourself the questions… the moment you ask what’s coming, you’re dead.

But that’s true with other things in life too. If you spend too much time speculating about what’s coming, it kind of makes you freeze.

It happens to musicians, to tennis players, it happens mostly to people who can do extraordinary things without too much effort. People who work hard have less of it because they have something to fall back on. So, sometimes it’s not good to be a genius. Sometimes it’s good to be just talented and hard-working because you have a bigger foundation for what you’re doing.

Israela Margalit and Maestro Lorin Maazel on a concert tour in South America

What was it like as a concert pianist to be married to a celebrated conductor? 

I met Lorin Maazel on the stage first because he invited me to play concerts with him. Playing together is not the problem. The problem with being married to a conductor is you don’t have time to practice. There’s a difference that I detect right away in hearing my concerts if it was a period in my life in which I had six hours of practice every day or only four or three. I think other people detect it too, without knowing why. If I want to play at my highest level, it has to be six hours a day because that gives such freedom, and the feeling that there’s nothing you can’t do; you just throw your hands on the keyboard and you know they’re going to land. When you marry a conductor, the schedule is crazy. He conducts an opera that ends at 10:30-11:00 then everybody goes to dinner. We used to go to bed at 3:00am, then get up at 8:00 to practice, and there was also travel. 

You are an inspiring example of what it means to reinvent yourself successfully. What do you think is important in taking the leap to change careers?

It’s individual. I never looked for another career. I just wanted to write, and I started writing in parallel to my career as a pianist. The first television shows were written while I was still playing concerts all over. I just got tired of traveling. When I started my career, traveling was fun, then it became a chore. So, I cut out my traveling, but it was a transition. I did not leave music; I continued to record. I don’t think this is a new career, it’s an extension of the same career. If you’re creative, you can do lots of things. Look, we live in a society that wants you to specialize. They say: “if we admire you as a pianist, then you owe us to be a pianist!” Says who? If we live to 50, maybe that’s what we’ll do, but we live much longer lives now. My career as a pianist was in front of the camera, my career as a writer is behind the camera. It’s a quieter career and I like it. There are certain times in your life when you want to do different things. I just didn’t want to be in front of the camera all the time; it’s lots of pressure. You can see it by the way I travel: when I was a concert pianist I traveled with six suitcases, now I travel with one.

Israela Margalit at Harlem School of the Arts, at a special concert presented by her non-profit organization Music and More

What has living in the United States meant for you?

I was born in Israel, then I went to Europe, and then I came to the States. In Europe I couldn’t have done everything that I’ve done here. You can’t break through to new things in Europe as easily as in the States. Here anything goes; it’s a country of initiative. Not that it’s easy. I can assure you when I wrote my first play I got so much criticism, I was under such scrutiny. Not every criticism is good. Some criticism is very important and I’m very open to it because without criticism you don’t learn anything. But you also have to preserve your artistic integrity. I think when people become very successful, they don’t get enough criticism. Everybody flatters them. Living in a world of flattery is the worst thing that can happen to creative people. That’s why you can see sometimes on stage a horrible play by a great playwright because nobody told him it’s bad. I always trust my daughter [Fiona Maazel] who is a wonderful, award-winning novelist; she’s the great writer of the family. I know if I write something really bad, both of my kids are going to tell me. We don’t have any flattery in our relationship, we tell each other things exactly the way they are. I think everybody needs somebody like that in their life.

Discover more about Israela Margalit on her website.

Read Israela Margalit’s thought-provoking piece on winning and losing in piano competitions.

Opening photo: Israela Margalit 
All photos courtesy of Israela Margalit 

About Maria-Cristina Necula (104 Articles)
Maria-Cristina Necula’s published work includes the books "The Don Carlos Enigma: Variations of Historical Fictions" and "Life in Opera: Truth, Tempo and Soul," and two translations: "Europe à la carte" and Molière’s "The School for Wives." Her articles and interviews have appeared in "Classical Singer" Magazine, "Das Opernglas," "Studies in European Cinema," and "Opera News." As a classically-trained singer she has performed in the New York City area at Weill Hall at Carnegie Hall, Merkin Hall, Florence Gould Hall, and the Westchester Broadway Theatre, and has presented on opera at The Graduate Center, Baruch, The City College of New York, and UCLA Southland. She speaks six languages, two of which she honed at the Sorbonne University in Paris and the University of Vienna, and she holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from The Graduate Center. Discover more at www.mariacristinanecula.com.