It's no secret that people love competitions, which has been true since the gladiators fought in the Roman Forum. Musical competitions are no different, from the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition to television's America's Got Talent. But these competitions are always held under a shadow - the shadow of the gladiators. A competition seems to subvert the profound nature of what the art of music represents: dialogue, cooperation, equality, attentiveness, and the expression of culture. A musical competition is, therefore, the opposite of what the business of music should be, except for one: the Spring Competitions, held by the America-Israel Cultural Foundation, which opens on Sunday at the Tel Aviv Museum.

The Spring Competitions, now in their fourteenth year, are different from the others because they are the high point and outcome of a long process. This is not a brawl for a career (although everyone wants to win, and the winners receive prizes worth NIS 100,000 ). Instead, they reflect the height of a continual developmental process which begins in the contestants' early childhood, when they first apply for the foundation's scholarships, after intensive study of instruments and singing.

The yearly exams anchor the students' musical life; they are awarded not only scholarships but are also loaned expensive instruments, take part in workshops and master classes in cooperation with other organizations, are commissioned to write musical works, and invited to take part in chamber groups and summer camps.

When they grow up and are mature enough to participate in the competitions taking place now, they are already part of a community; when they mature further, they themselves become teachers and advisors, agents of musical education and among other things return the investment by sharing in the effort to raise contributions to maintain and continue this enterprise.

Money down the drain

Orit Naor, director of the foundation since January 2008, recently returned from a week in New York for just this purpose. The fundraising centerpiece was a large gala concert at the Lincoln Jazz Center. "Some 1,200 people from all over the U.S., from Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago, filled the hall," Naor says, "and those who performed were the fund's scholarship winners: Koby Malhin, winner of the Spring Competitions, Michael Katz who will participate in the current one, and Alon Kariv, a young winner who received his first scholarship at age 10." Kariv is a grandson of the late Eli Horowitz, a great friend and supporter of the fund who was to receive a prize for his work before his recent, sudden death.

Naor, a flutist and former scholarship winner, served as Israeli cultural attache in Washington until she began to direct the fund, and very soon ran into a crisis. Less than a year on the job, it turned out the foundation's investments, which produced $2 million or more a year in support, had gone down the drain in the huge Ponzi scheme perpetrated by Bernard Madoff. The Israeli music scene was stricken with anxiety when they learned of this; it could not picture itself continuing without the America-Israel Fund. But Naor was uncompromising in her struggle to recover from the loss. "We couldn't repair all the damage," she says. "We trimmed some activities, such as recordings, and a celebratory opening concert for the competition, but not the competition itself."

This year the competition will be open to the public without charge. "It is an opportunity for young people to attend, since most of the concerts will be held during the Hanukkah vacation," Naor says, inviting them to come and listen to music in four categories: piano, song, cello, and woodwinds. Some 37 contestants aged 21 to 30, poised on the verge of their careers, will compete; important figures on the local music scene will serve as judges.

A family foundation

The fund was established by the American Jewish philanthropist Edward Norman in 1939; soon after it focused solely on culture. It supports all Israeli art organizations, and thousands of artists have been granted scholarships - not only for classical music - from visual artists Sigalit Landau and Menashe Kadishman, dancer Rina Scheinfeld, actress Yevgenya Dodina, film director Dover Koshoshvili and singers Rita and Miki Gabrielov.

The violinist Isaac Stern served as the fund's president and was a key figure in it. He established the Jerusalem Music Center, in order to strengthen fund recipients and broaden their activities. Relations between the two bodies are close to this day; they work together to teach violin in outlying areas of the country, under the direction of violinist Miriam Fried, and hold master classes and various musical encounters.

Naor admits that most of her current activities, in the downsized organization, which now has only three employees, are connected to fundraising. "I am struggling most of the time, meeting potential donors, organizing events to raise money. What saved the fund after the fall, was not any one institutional body but private Israeli donors, for example, the Arison Fund, which gives us $500,000 a year and supports the competition, which is our oxygen.

"These three difficult years prove our strength and relevance," says Naor. "Not all funds succeeded in surviving this crisis...The struggle is Sisyphean, but I am optimistic."

Naor is herself a product of the fund and believes it fills a unique role. "I grew up in Be'er Sheva, which is absolutely an outlying area; we didn't know about anything. The fund opened my eyes," she says. "When you see, for example, what the loan of instruments does for children who can't afford to buy them, it is worth all the frustrations, and our having had to go back to square one. This is a fund unlike any other and there is no substitute for it in Israel."