The Secret Is Competition

The recently concluded Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition, whose characteristics and program perfectly match the above description, has become a dazzling success, as happens every three years when it is held.

Suppose an Israeli association for promoting classical piano were established in Israel. Suppose it chose an attractive title for itself, naming itself after a revered pianist, as the Artur Schnabel Society. If that society declared a two-week piano festival featuring the world's finest young pianists, would thousands of listeners buy tickets for their recitals?

Would they purchase tickets to hear the pianists play solos in concerti? What if the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra accompanied their playing - would people buy tickets then? Would the French television channel Mezzo, which is devoted to classical music and jazz, dispatch teams to record the performances, to then broadcast the grand finale?

Never. And Army Radio's evening news would not interview the participants. Journalists would not anoint kings and queens from among the participants in pathos-heavy, one-word crowns. Television anchors Yaron London and Motti Kirschenbaum would not invite commentators to their studio to discuss the performers' music.

That festival, whose cost - including hefty scholarships for the pianists - would have reached hundreds of thousands of dollars and would have surely turned into a resounding flop, to go down in history as a bizarre attempt on the local musical scene.

And yet the recently concluded Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition, whose characteristics and program perfectly match the above description, has become a dazzling success, as happens every three years when it is held.

Classical music made headlines because of the competition, and it made for the best show in town with the Chopin, Beethoven and Brahms recitals that were played there.

So what's the secret of the Arthur Rubinstein Competition? The answer is well-known to any reality television buff: The fact that it's a competition.

It's a cup-type tournament, where the loser steps down. It's a competition with judges, stages, rounds, semifinals and a final. A competition which provides everything found in sports games: moments of happiness, bitter disappointments, elation and nationalism (the Israeli and the Georgian made the final!) - coupled with suspense and drama.

What does all that have to do with music?

As in sports, height, speed and might are prime components. But unlike sports, where loser and winner can be determined according to those three measurable ingredients, in music these elements are meaningless in determining the artist's quality.

Variables such as the number of notes a certain competitor has managed to cram into so many seconds, or the fortissimo he had landed, are not what makes some artists better than others. Music is not about reaching higher or about getting there faster or stronger.

The standards of this spiritual and abstract art form are incalculable. They include such parameters as who strove more toward self-expression, who displayed a more genuine ability to observe the piece, who was more moving, who expressed more beauty, who was more uncompromising in their struggle for originality and personal expression?

This event, which takes place every three years, constitutes an energy boost to Israel's classical music scene and is very precious to its development and preservation, even though now, only days later, the finalists have all but vanished from the collective memory in the same way that a Saturday soccer match is forgotten. As for the performers from earlier competitions, they're almost completely gone from memory.

But classical music, which in Israel is an endangered species, needs this celebration. We can console ourselves with the fact that Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Scarlatti (whose music was played at the Rubinstein tournament) were, in fact, participants at the event. And not only them: European guilds of musicians and singers have engaged in classical music competitions since the Middle Ages. The post of cantor for Amsterdam's Great Synagogue was determined in a competition from as early as the 18th century.

If this is the way of bringing thousands to listen to piano music, then so be it, even at the price of this circus-like event.

On second thought, something does come to mind in this context: the small southern French town of La Roque d'Antheron, which is no bigger than a neighborhood in metropolitan Tel Aviv. For the past 27 summers, this small town has hosted a piano festival that has nothing to do with competition. Even though the festival's guidelines wholly reject the competitive approach, its 70 recitals draw hundreds of thousands of listeners from all across Europe. Its designer and creator, Rene Martin, chortles at the suggestion that the piano recital is dead.

"If that's true, then how come we see a 20-percent annual increase in the number of listeners?" he asks. "Classical music has the largest potential for audiences. The life of anyone who listens to Schubert's Impromptu for the first time will change. The trick is to get them to the concert."

How did he succeed, despite his non-competitive ideology? That's a secret. They say the location of this tiny town in the heart of placid and affluent Provence helps. Perhaps.