I have my fans, you know. What I mean by this is that some of the people who receive this blog actually read it and some of them occasionally write to me to comment or to offer suggestions as to how I might have produced a better version of what I had just posted or how I might have improved the content in general; some even remark upon my writing style. So far, nobody has actually demanded or even requested that I refrain from sending them any more of these things, from which I can only surmise that those who don’t want it just junk it —or even worse, ignore it. (I have to admit that on occasion when I really don’t want to read rubbish from people I hardly know, I have told them to stop sending it to me.) However, you’re part of a pretty selective group to start off with.
On Tuesday night, there was a gala concert at the Tel Aviv Opera House, which marked the opening the 15th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition. As I noted in my last post, I decided to give that particular event a miss and to start my duties as a volunteer photographer the following morning at the draw for the current competition. This is the event at which the order in which the contestants perform is determined and it remains constant for the whole competition. So, weighed down by a camera bag containing half a dozen lenses, a couple of cameras, and other bits and pieces, I bussed and walked down to the hotel in downtown Tel Aviv in which the draw was to take place on what was already turning out to be a warm day.
As far as I was concerned, it was an inauspicious start to my participation in this competition. Arriving at the hotel, I was directed to two places in order of their immediate importance—the men’s room and the room in which the draw was to take place. Having done with the former, I made my way to the latter—to find that it seemed to be crawling with people holding expensive photographic accessories. I thought this odd as when we were deciding on which sessions each photographer—there are two of us—would attend, I had specifically told the producer that I would take the draw.
So I decided to check and discovered that despite all the attention given to the detail of organising this fortnight-long event, there seemed to be—how shall I say—a gap along the lines of communication. The office manager informed me that she had nothing to do with photographers and that I should talk to the Executive Producer who, when I eventually located her, told me that the photographers were being coordinated by the PR outfit they had hired for the competition. So on I went in search of the person concerned only to discover that she had, indeed, invited the press en masse—well, that’s her job, isn’t it—to cover the draw but who hadn’t been told about me.
Frankly, I couldn’t see any point in hanging around; it just seemed as if all the snappers and paparazzi were already treading on one another’s toes quite literally. Moreover, as each competitor was being transported to the next venue by their individual volunteer host (to the Tel Aviv Museum, where the first three rounds of the competition take place) for the 15 minutes allotted to each to select from the three pianos available to them in the competition, I would have had to find my own way there. So, such being the state of affairs, I took myself home before trying to find out once more if I was really needed. The only positive facet of all this shenanigans was that walking around the part of Tel Aviv where the hotel is located — an area I hadn’t been to for a few years — it struck me that I should come again with a camera and a suitable lens but not laden down with a bag photographic equipment or dressed “respectably”, as I was for the aborted event.
By noon I was the Museum to take pictures of the piano selection. Somehow I had a feeling of déjà déjà vu as the competitors trooped up from auditorium to stage to have their 15 minutes to choose from a Steinway, a Fazioli or a Kawai instrument as their preferred weapon of musical war. Then they trooped down again to sign an agreement that they stick with their choice to the bitter (or sweet) end, come what may. In 2014, 31 competitors chose a Steinway and just five plumped for Fazioli, leading to a much overworked Steinway piano with a weak voice at the end of the competition. This time around, the distribution was more even — 15 elected to play on a Steinway, 10 went for Fazioli and five chose Kawai.
I didn’t stay to watch all of these very talented kiddos strut their stuff, for that would have taken me through to quite late in the evening and anyway, hearing people plays bits and pieces for eight hours is a little mind-numbing. Anyway, there’ll be plenty opportunity to hear some of them over and over again during the next fortnight, ad nauseam, ad infinitum — but never ad hoc. (The first round concludes on Sunday afternoon whereupon the judges announce which competitors will be looking to fly home the next day and which remain on to fight yet another few days, that is until the final six are chosen to “progress” to the chamber music and orchestral stages a few days later).
Suffice to say that on choosing pianos, they divided into several categories. There were those who were “tied” to one or other of the piano companies prior to the competition and they simply used their allotted quarter of an hour to practise or rehearse parts of their programmes without as much as looking at the other two monsters on the stage. (The representatives of the piano companies seem to all use the possessive case when referring to “their” men and women. Then, there were those who seemed to expend much of their energy walking or trotting from piano to piano, playing a few phrases or chords on each and then doing the circuit again, and again, and again. A third group comprised “the confused”; these seemed to have had no preconceived idea as to which sounded best and they appeared to be asking their minders (who might have been teachers, parents or grandparents—I have no idea which) in languages I don’t understand what they should do. It’s quite a fateful decision as if they have erred in their choice, they have to grin and bear it (and play on it) throughout the competition just as they’re stuck with when they play, something that had been decided earlier by the luck of the draw.
That done, Thursday marked the start of the competition in the Recanati Auditorium at Tel Aviv Museum of Art. I’m the duty photographer in the first session and take a seat in the last row so that I can see the faces of the pianists rather than their hands. But before it starts, the judges also seated in the last row but in the middle section are introduced to the audience. And quite an exalted bunch of fingersmiths they are, too. Chaired by Arie Vardi from Israel, they include Peter Donohoe from the UK, Michel Béroff from France, Janina Fialkowska from Canada. And then there is the 93-year old Menachem Pressler of Beaux Arts Trio fame. The audience responds to the announcement of his name by giving him an especially vociferous ovation, presumably because he is (a) 93 and still lucid if not so spry, (b) back in Tel Aviv, where his career began, and (c) willing to subject himself to the rigours of judging an almost 3-week long competition. Yet here he is, 71 years after he was awarded first prize at the Debussy International Piano Competition in San Francisco in 1946! He is accompanied by the charming Annabelle Whitestone for whom the 90-year-old Arthur Rubinstein left his wife of 45 years in 1977, living with her in Geneva until he died in 1982. (Subsequently, a decade later, Annabelle married the publisher George Weidenfeld and remained with him until he passed away last year.)
As usual, the standard was pretty high. To my untutored ear, I would say that overall, it’s a higher level than three years ago. They’re all good otherwise they wouldn’t be here in the first place. They may all be good but only some of them are interesting. And only some of those are exciting. And then there are a couple who radiate energy like none of the others.
I photographed four pianists on my watch in the first part of the afternoon. Two Chinese performers and one from Taiwan were followed by a young man from Georgia, who played Schubert and Liszt and who I thought was a mature artist. However, I’ll say no more except that in 2014, every performer I liked most was eliminated at the end of the round, which says something about my level of ignorance and what the judges are listening for.
Today (Friday), I did the afternoon session — a French girl, followed by a Chinese competitor wearing a wonderful scarlet shirt, followed by a dour Russian who did little for me but perhaps made an impression on the judges.
Finally, we were treated to an 18-year old Englishman, Julian Trevelyan. Most of the time, I have no difficulty remembering that I am there just to take photographs. However, every now and then, I have to give myself a kick in the backside as a reminder that I shouldn’t get too carried away and this was one of those occasions. On the website of the BBC Young Musician of the Year Competition 2016 at which he was a piano finalist, he was described as follows: “Julian is a member of Aldeburgh Young Musicians and also attends Mid-Herts Centre for Music and Arts. He plays violin and viola at Pro Corda and Britten Sinfonia Academy. He also enjoys chamber music and singing. [He] is home educated, and his interests include geology, gymnastics and good food.”
Yes, quite so. As far as I’m concerned—and this is probably the kiss of death for young Julian—this is a born artist. He played Schumann’s Humoreske with feeling and Shostakovich’s fiendishly difficult Piano Sonata #1 with aplomb. I was seated directly behind Menachem Pressler who nodded in approval many, many times over the 40 minutes (and he wasn’t falling asleep; Béroff followed the score of the Shostakovich intently on his iPad. I think that “electric” is the term that is often used for an experience like this. The audience lapped him up with a thirst that seemed as if they were the Children of Israel who’d been plodding through the Sinai Desert without as much as sip of water for 40 years.
Ah, yes. We’re only halfway through the first round and we’ll have to see what tomorrow and Sunday bring in terms of pianistic genius!
By the way, in case anyone’s counting, this is PhotoGeoGraphy post #100.