The Jewish Chronicle
Searching for the next piano master
Pandemics and piano conpetitions don’t mix. Jessica Duchen finds out how to make sure the show goes on
HOW DO you hold a piano competition in cyberspace? The Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition is in the process of finding out. It is one of the most significant such events in the world, having over the decades propelled many young artists to stardom. This month its 16th contest is taking wing, a year late, having been postponed from 2020 owing to the pandemic. For the same reason its format has had to be radically reinvented.
The competition was first held in Tel Aviv in 1974, when Jan Jacob Bistritzky launched it in the spirit of his good friend, the revered pianist Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982). Celebrated not only for his peerless playing, but also for championing new music — Szymanowski and Stravinsky were among the composers who wrote for him — Rubinstein was in addition a warm-hearted mentor to young musicians. He attended the first two competitions, at which the winners were respectively Emanuel Ax and Gerhard Oppitz. Since then, with the contest taking place every three years, the first prize winners have included Daniil Trifonov and Kirill Gerstein; the likes of Igor Levit, Boris Giltburg, Seong-Jin Cho and Khatia Buniatishvili have been runners-up.
It’s a daunting prospect for participants at the best of times. This year, out of 35 pianists from 16 countries in the first round, just 16 performers are selected for the second; after that, six finalists must each play a piano quintet and two concertos. Normally, the contestants descend on Tel Aviv from around the globe. Audiences would pack into concert halls to hear them; close-knit communities spring into action to support the young performers; and the final requires the collaboration of chamber musicians and a full orchestra.
Now nothing can function in the usual way. The competition was delayed from 2020 in the hope that the situation would improve; but even if the vaccine is helping within Israel, there is still a long way to go for an organisation that depends heavily on international travel. Therefore, as much as possible is being relayed remotely, online.
According to the competition’s artistic director, the pianist Ariel Cohen, this prospect may be chal
Instead of complaining about this new medium we decided to make the most of it
lenging, but opens up fresh and valuable ideas. “Instead of complaining about the situation that has forced us to move from real to virtual concerts, we decided to look at this new medium and try to make the most of it, creating an entirely new experience,” he says.
“It’s a much more complicated production than usual. Normally, everything happens in Tel Aviv. This time we have instead to produce recordings for the early rounds in five different locations: New York, London, Beijing, Potsdam and Tel Aviv. In each place we have to hire a suitable hall with good acoustics, bring in two concert grand pianos for the choice of the competitors, find the audio-visual crew and make sure that the standard is similar in terms of the specifications of camera angles and microphones. All the competitors need the best — and similar — quality so that the jury members can judge them accordingly.”
The jury is selected chiefly from among leading pedagogues and performers; this year’s line-up of ten includes the legendary former pianist of the Beaux Arts Trio, the 97-year-old Menahem Pressler, as well as Christopher Elton from the UK, the Russian-Israeli Yefim Bronfman, and Ewa Poblocka from Poland, among others. Students of the jurors are not permitted to compete — something that inexplicably is still far from standard in international competitions.
“Usually the adjudicators come to Tel Aviv and listen to the competitors in the hall, but this time they will be listening from their homes online,” Cohen says. “Then we have to think how we do the jury meetings and the voting. The Audience Prize, too, is usually voted for in the hall at the finals, but now we have to do it via the Internet.”
Audiences online can tune in from anywhere to watch the entire competition and more. Among some newly introduced audience development initiatives is a series of Zoom discussions to offer insights into how the jurors make their decisions, at which audience members can ask questions. There’s also a series of performance analysis sessions: following the recital streamings, several prominent pianists will analyse the playing and interpretation that they have just heard. “I think this will give a deeper understanding for the audience on what to look for and how musicians listen to different pianists to compare their interpretations,” says Cohen.
The buzz, argument and controversy as listeners respond to concerts is harder to recreate online, though not impossible. As for the performance adrenaline that is so difficult for performers to harness without a live audience, the experience of the past year of lockdowns is now proving valuable. Many competitors already have concert careers; Cohen says they have told him they are growing accustomed to performing to an invisible crowd instead.
The final round, though, has to be nonvirtual, with the finalists present to perform their concertos with the Israel Philharmonic and the Israel Camerata Jerusalem: “Four of the concerts are with orchestras and it’s not rational to do this without the audience. We have decided in the board of the competition that if we cannot hold the finals with audience in the hall, we will postpone it.” At time of writing, venues in Israel are reopening, even if not at full capacity, and with the finals due to take place from April 29 to May 3, hopes are running high.
“We have the chance this year because of the format to involve new audiences from all over the world,” says Cohen. “This time it’s not that there is a privileged audience sitting in the hall and the others are only listening on the Internet. Everyone is in the same situation, so it’s the first time that it’s an international competition not only for the competitors, but for the listeners as well.”
There’s a lot at stake. The first prize winner can expect to take home $40,000 and the attention of the entire classical music industry. The competition’s title is not a coincidence: Cohen says that they are looking for someone who is ready to embark upon a major career, a veritable “piano master”. Will they find such a musician? There are no guarantees – but they have done it before.
We can involve new audiences from around the world,not just those sitting in the hall