Prestigious Piano Competition Returns to Tel Aviv, Looking to Be Key Music Event

Israel’s best-known classical music event celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, but the organizers of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition aren’t dwelling on former glories.

Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev
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Idith Zvi and Arie Vardi, next to a portrait of the late Arthur Rubinstein.
Idith Zvi and Arie Vardi, next to a portrait of the late Arthur Rubinstein.Credit: Daniel Tchetchik
Noam Ben Zeev
Noam Ben-Zeev

The Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition is upon us once more. The triennial event, held in Tel Aviv, celebrates its 40th anniversary this year after being founded by Jan Jacob Bistritzky in 1974, when it was attended by Rubinstein himself. The 14th event begins Tuesday and runs until May 29.

“It’s not just a competition but also a piano festival,” agree Idith Zvi, the competition’s artistic director, and Arie Vardi, musical consultant and head judge. “We’re downplaying the competition aspect of the event, instead highlighting the festival aspect – and we’re glad to say that people have begun referring to it as a festival.”

Calling the Rubinstein Competition a festival is by no means a misnomer, and its directors have identified its unique, popular characteristics – which make it unlike other events of its kind, such as Warsaw’s Chopin competition or Moscow’s Tchaikovsky competition.

Tel Aviv Museum’s music halls will be full during the recitals by competitors aged between 18 and 32; the finals at the Charles Bronfman Auditorium will be jam-packed; and even those who never normally listen to classical music will be listening in. In the age of reality shows, this kind of musical competition is more interesting than ever.

The media apparently agrees, with the final set to be shown live on network television. The competition has also generated a great deal of buzz on popular radio stations – an unusual occurrence for the music of Beethoven, Chopin, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.

“It’s because it’s a competition for the public,” says Vardi by way of explanation, explaining that they created this mood by allowing the audience to applaud after each piece, as well as to request, and receive, encores – practices that are usually considered a no-no in the world of musical competitions. Or, for example, organizing volunteers from within the community to assist the competitors and even host them, should they be eliminated early and lose their hotel privileges.

This year, Vardi and Zvi have increased the competition’s media exposure: the performances will be streamed live on the official website (, turning the event into a real reality show, complete with a host (Shira Gera) who’ll be taking the audience backstage. Gera will talk to competitors and hold a panel with musicians and media personalities, including conductor Stanley Sperber and pianist Irit Rov.

The judges are also popular figures, including pianist Yoni Rechter. By appointing Rechter as a judge, as well as former winner Alexander Korsantia, the competition is trying to soften its rigid image.

Tempting prizes

No matter how you go about it, there is something different about musical competitions. Children’s music teachers don’t teach their pupils how to play harder or faster, or how to play more gracefully than their friends. They teach them, first and foremost, to listen: first to themselves, and then others. They teach them by preaching technique, perseverance and discipline, and how to express all the deep nuances that music has to offer. They teach them how to develop sensitivity, how to be spontaneous. Music teachers plant within their students the seed of aesthetic standards. Competition in such a field is almost contemptible.

But in the grown-up world, music is an industry, a way of making a living, and therefore it is political and competitive. In such a world, says Vardi, piano competitions create large audiences, connections, concert invitations, record deals, television and radio broadcasts. “What young pianist would get such opportunities without this kind of competitive platform?” asks Vardi.

The competition’s repertoire is conservative and mainstream, despite the complete autonomy granted the competitors to choose their recital pieces. Competitors, however, know that the more central their repertoire is, the higher are the chances that the judge will know it.

“The repertoire is first and foremost in the spirit of Arthur Rubinstein, the mainstream of the piano canon – for piano lovers,” explains Vardi. Regardless, two specially composed contemporary Israeli pieces are included: “Reflections on Love,” by Ella Milch-Sheriff, and “Subconscious Labyrinths,” by Benjamin Yusupov. Competitors will be required to play one of the two pieces.

Vardi and Zvi say the national profile of the competitors has changed over the years, and they attribute this to a phenomenon common to all competitions throughout the world.

“In the beginning the competitors were German, French and English, American and Israeli, but now they are Korean, Japanese and Chinese,” notes Vardi. “Today, young people in the West prefer to go into high-tech, and are less drawn toward solo art, because the work here is very difficult and there is only a slight chance of success. The highest concentration – aside from Italy, which has suddenly blossomed this year – is the Far East. It’s the same at Juilliard in New York – 40 years ago the average pianist was a Jewish guy, now it’s a Korean girl.”

How do you decide who’s worthy to make it to the next round?

Vardi: “I ask myself, Would I want to hear this pianist again? Are they worthy of first prize?”

Aside from exposure, the winners will receive big prizes: $40,000 for first place, $20,000 for second and $15,000 for third, as well as medals designed by Pablo Picasso. There are also prizes for other categories, such as Audience Favorite and Best Performer of the Israeli Composition. After the recitals, six competitors will advance to the finals, which will include chamber music, accompanied by string and wind instruments, and two concertos.

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