Mayday, Mayday — election approaching!

MAYDAY: an international radio distress signal used by ships and aircraft

It’s hard to believe that there’s going to be a General Election here in a little over a week. Even just 10 years ago, the streets — walls, windows, lampposts and any other available hanging space would have been plastered with election paraphernalia — posters, placards and all the rest.  I noticed a similar non-occurrence of visible electoral material in Israel the last time around although here, in NW London, it’s almost completely absent.  I suppose that most of the electioneering is done on “Social Media”, email, tweets (whatever they are), and so on.  What I’ve learned is from radio and TV and The Guardian newspaper — and even there, there hasn’t been much in the way of election material during the past week, most of the time and space taken up by the Manchester mass murders and their aftermath.

That said, on Bank Holiday Monday, there was a buzz from the intercom downstairs and a disembodied woman’s voice announced that she was canvassing for the Labour Party and asked me if I’d made up my mind yet who I was about to vote for. Were I to vote, I don’t think I’d be voting for her man, Sir Keir Starmer QC, the current Labour MP for the constituency of Holborn and St Pancras. Undoubtedly an intelligent and extremely competent person (he was the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Head of the Crown Prosecution Service for five years from 2008 to 2013), he represents an area that voted 75% “Remain” in the referendum on whether the UK should leave the European Union last year.   That did not prevent him, however, obeying party orders and voting to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and start the process of withdrawal from the European Union.  

In my naïveté, I was under the impression—seemingly mistakenly—that in a constituency system, the Member of Parliament is elected to represent the voters who put her/him there! But party discipline  and political ambition apparently eclipse the will of the people represented.  So the question is why should one bother to vote for him this time around? It wouldn’t have made any difference to the outcome of the vote in parliament but it would have kept his slate clean, as it were. However, with 52.9% of the vote in the 2015 General Election, I suppose Sir Keir will have no difficulty getting himself re-elected this time around.

Visible signs of the election may be missing from the streets but on Monday night, television viewers were treated to a spectacle provided by Sky News and Channel 4 jointly, when the leaders of the two main parties, Conservative and Labour appeared on the same programme sequentially, i.e., separately, one after the other.  Each answered [prepared] questions from members of an [invited] audience, followed by an interview with Jeremy Paxman.  

For readers unfamiliar with Paxman and his interviewing style, I can only describe it as something resembling the friendliness of a ravenous piranha or a single-minded bull terrier with its teeth embedded deep in its victim’s thigh.  Whereas both politicians appeared reasonably at ease with the Q&A (Corbyn perhaps a little more so than the Prime Minister, who elicited some guffaws from members of the audience and if you can lipread, you can see what one member of the audience thought of her by checking out the YouTube recording of the programme and skipping to 1:02:26!).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LiDvn3ZWgN4

In contrast, however, both of them were toasted and then roasted before they were flipped over and battered and fried (in a deep batter, too) by Paxman, whose long-tested tactic is to ask a question and then repeat it over and again until he receives a non-evasive answer. (He is notorious for having asked Michael Howard, then Leader of the Conservative party the same question (“did you threaten to overrule him?”) twelve times before letting go without an answer.) Tenacity is irrefutably gross understatement for describing his approach to dealing with politicians and both Mrs. May and Mr. Corbyn emerged from the beating both tyrannised and bruised.  

As Paxman battered away, the Labour leader’s facial twitches revealed his unease, especially when he was asked about some of his “shadier” past acquaintances—in the IRA and the Arab World—who he has described on occasion as “friends”.  The Prime Minister, appearing as smug as a bug in a rug, physically squirmed in her seat, in particular when he asked her how she had managed the transformation over a few days last year from when she had been a supporter of “Remain” to be able to utter that by now infamous “Brexit is Brexit.”  She’s been asked this question dozens of times and she must have been expecting it but she found it difficult to hide the fact that she didn’t really have an answer except to say that “We asked the people” and “the people decided”—which, to me, has always sounded like “followership” rather than “leadership”.

It’s not as if they didn’t know what they would be letting themselves in for.  Self-immolation indeed!  And in these exchanges, Mrs. May might perhaps have won on points but they were like two boxers who had almost knocked one another out in a long slugging match.  It was good entertainment, though.  I think the best each might have hoped for is that not very many people bothered to watch!

As they performed and did their best to escape with as few injuries as possible, I kept thinking that the Prime Minister of Israel has never appeared in his 11 years in power on anything like this.  He doesn’t mind talking to foreign interviewers every other weekend but I can only remember one interview he has granted to Israeli televiewers and that was a highly stage-managed event in which the interviewers were placed in a position of absolute obsequiousness.  Perhaps some unprincipled soul could invite Paxman to Israel?

Anyway enough of this.  We’ll know the result soon.  The only palliative feature of this whole election campaign is that it is so short.  Just over a week before the election and the parties are still unveiling their manifestoes.

Meanwhile, here we are in London for a fortnight and in addition to brushing up on the rough and tumble of British politics, we’ve been doing the rounds of family and friends.  So after three weeks curled up behind a camera in Tel Aviv watching, photographing and listening to young pianistic virtuosi, it was a particular pleasure to attend music assembly at our grandson’s school and listen to him perform two short pieces after just four lessons on the instrument with some aplomb.  At the same time, as if I might have had enough of pianos, I am reading Play it Again, by Alan Rusbridger, who was editor The Guardian newspaper for 20 years and an accomplished amateur pianist.  In diary form and with much name-dropping, he describes how in 2010-11, having set himself the almost impossible task of learning to play Chopin’s Ballade #1, Op. 23, in order to perform it before an audience at a piano camp in Italy, and how he went about it.  While he was doing this, of course, he was editing the newspaper during a period in which he dealt with the paper’s publication of Wikileaks, the News of the World‘s phone-hacking scandal and a trip to rescue one of the newspaper’s correspondents in Libya just days before British and French airplanes began bombing there.

 

Tal & the piano.jpg

In between all this, there have been the usual early morning walks and one of the things that never fails to amaze me is how unobservant I can be.  I mean, I walk the same routes over and over again, and each time I come across something I hadn’t noticed before or if I had noticed it, I had missed its significance.  

And so it’s been this week.  There are flowers everywhere.  Sometimes they grow wild, as on Hampstead Heath; more often, they are in gardens.  However, as often as not — at least in this urban part of the world — they’ll be growing out of walls and it’s remarkable how they can prettify what is otherwise a very ordinary street landscape. 

And walking on and around Hampstead Heath, I must have passed St. Johns Church on Downshire Hill dozens of times without having photographed it once — and then, with the very dark grey backdrop, there it was.  The angle wasn’t great and there were too many cars parked on the street to make it even a good photograph.  Nevertheless, it was worth it because I don’t know quite when the light will appear the same again.

*St. Johns, Downshire.jpg

*St. Johns, Downshire 1.jpg

And one day, when I’m not distracted by other things, I really need to traverse Hampstead Heath systematically in order to record the inscriptions on the park benches. Some of these are highly personal yet all the benches have a limited life and, I presume, are gradually replaced as the inscriptions fade and the bench is worn away from use.

*Heath bench.jpg

Then, just around the corner from St. Johns, on South End Road, are gates to two private houses, both of which I have passed perhaps hundreds of times in the past 20 years. I’ve photographed the one at #77 before, but the stark “Keep Out” message is always worth a click. However, the one a little further up the street at #95, I don’t recollect ever having discerned before—although my eyes must have seen it.  Seeing but failing to catch sight, I suppose.

*Keep Out!.jpg

*Keeper of the Gate.jpg

Again, as I’ve noted before, my eye is attracted to signs — or more correctly, I suppose, to the words borne by the signs.  Sometimes, the words and the instructions or other information contained in them leave me wondering what is meant, at least until I give them some thought.  This sign on the door to a set of Harley Street consulting rooms left me wondering if, indeed, the bell is disabled, what you are supposed to do with it.

*Disabled bell.jpg

The picture below of a door at 246 Haverstock Hill, a section of the main drag between Camden Town and Hampstead village, illustrates well the concept of migration.  Now, apparently, inhabited by the Chauhan family, replete with what I take to be Hindu icons, had previously had Jewish occupants as illustrated by the mezuzah on the right doorpost.

*Multi culti.jpg

In town, the large redevelopment of the once notorious Centre Point building from offices to apartments continues apace.  

*Centre Point.jpg

Close by, the work on Crossrail,  a 118-km railway line running through parts of London, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Essex also continues. Its central section, which runs through London, is due to open in December 2018.  Meanwhile, its periphery yields some interesting images, not least the ferocious-looking security guard.

*Crossrail.jpg

About 250m from where we park ourselves in London lies this milestone telling me it’s 4 miles from the Post Office … if only I knew which post office and where it’s located.  I suppose that without too much ado, I could find out but like lots of other things, I haven’t got around to it yet.

*4 miles from P.O..jpg

As usual, the view from Primrose Hill is quite some sight, even on grey days when there’s a lot of cloud about.

*From summit, Primrose.jpg

Finally, although I noted at the top of this post that there are few visible indications in the urban landscape that there’s an imminent General Election, one does occasionally come across a sign on the window of a flat or shop expressing a voter preference.  Mostly, these seem to be something like “I’m voting Labour”; I haven’t seen any for the other parties yet. Perhaps Tory supporters are too ashamed to state publicly that that’s what they are.  The sign below appeared about three days ago in the window of what had been for years an Italian restaurant near us.  I say “Italian” because externally, the dishes looked Italian and had Italian names but there was always something lacking in the flavours even though the pizzas were amazing.  This isn’t all that surprising because the owner and sometime cook was Alok, a member of a rare breed, a Hindu from Bangladesh who was/is married to Jamilla, a Muslim woman from somewhere in the Caucasus.  A year ago, the restaurant appeared to be abandoned, with shutters down and door open — and that’s the way it has remained for the past 12 months.  But it appears that somebody has access to the establishment and s/he is going to vote Labour next week.  

I wonder if ???

*I'm voting Labour.jpg

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Dogs, doves and Donald!

Well, we made it!  The Rubinstein Piano Competition, if not forgotten, has faded away for a while.  The Donald arrived after we departed Tel Aviv so there was no opportunity for us to take selfies with him or otherwise exchange pleasantries, which was probably just as fortunate for the President as it was for us.

As the airline had informed us that everything at Ben-Gurion Airport (TLV) would be normal on the day, we booked a cab to arrive at the airport on time only to change our minds and have it come earlier — just in case things didn’t work out.  Consequently, we got to the airport even a little prematurely.  The only thing that was atypical was when passing through the airport security barrier, we were handed a piece of paper letting us know that if we had been planning on flying from Terminal 1 on that particular day, then we would have to go to Terminal 3 in order to pass security and passports and that there would be no transportation between the buildings.  The people who had elected to fly on a charter flight out that morning would have some running around to do.  All stayed normal until we were seated on the plane and informed that there would be an hour’s delay because of “heavy air traffic” in the vicinity, something never encountered at Tel Aviv.  Then we were up and away before Air Farce One arrived, made up the lost time en route  and arrived at Heathrow at the appointed hour.

There were two surprises on the flight and they had nothing whatsoever to do with the visit of you-know-who to Israel.  The elderly man (is that the word to use for people who appear older than you when you are already much older than you think you are?) seated behind us, we figured out from the questions he was asking that he was either flying for the first time or at least for the first time alone.  His behaviour seemed a little strange throughout the flight and about an hour before landing, he tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I would do him a favour and fill out the landing card required by UK Border Control (Immigration) because he didn’t read English.  (Or do you fill it in? I suppose that depends on where your were brought up.)

“No problem”, says I, “but I’ll need some information from you to complete the form”, says I. Now, the questions asked are fairly innocuous but the authorities do request a contact address in the UK, so I enquired of him the name of the establishment at which he would be lodging.  His simple response “In a hotel” left me a little dumbfounded.  On inquiring which of the several thousand inns that exist in the metropolis this might be, he responded in quaint Jerusalem-accented Hebrew, “I don’t know.  I’ll probably look for one when I get there!” How he was planning to carry off this assignment with so little English and not having been to London before was a bit beyond my ken but I have to admit that any altruism I possessed had already sadly been extinguished by this stage of the proceedings.  I was hoping that my constant companion of the past half century and more, who often takes pity on such wayward souls, wasn’t thinking about inviting him to reside with us for a couple of nights until he found something more suitable—but to my astonishment, she simply said on this occasion: “He’ll manage”.  And I’m sure he did.

The second surprise had to do with the passenger seated closest to us for the five hours we were in the air.   This was the most placid wayfarer I have ever experienced on an El Al flight, perhaps on any air journey.  Her name turned out to be Dinka and Dinka is a seeing eye dog, a guide dog for the blind.  She boarded with her owner and her owner’s companion and spent the whole five hours seated at their feet, barely moving.  I was fascinated and not being an avid cynophilist, I asked how it was possible to take a dog on to a plane and be sure that it wouldn’t (using the anodyne American euphemism) need to “use the bathroom”.  

The answer was uncomplicated.  By fasting.  On a short trip like this, I learned, she doesn’t eat or drink on the day before the trip and so has emptied herself via all possible orifices prior to boarding; there’s simply nothing left. Furthermore, I was informed, without further prying on my part, that on transatlantic flights, a full 24 hours or more of fasting is imposed to ensure dryness, etc.  

IMG_1209

Well, thought I, what a wonderful piece of news! And on reading this, you might well ask yourself why.  Well, the plain simple truth is that El Al should be able to learn a thing or two from Dinka.  For those of you who have not had the pleasure of travelling on Israel’s national carrier, there is, how shall I put it, a little more social turbulence than on less frenetic carriers where hyperactivity and human locomotion are more tightly controlled.  Some El Al passengers appear to suffer from a kind of congenital disorder that prevents them from sitting for more than 15 minutes at a time.  Many others appear to know one another and have no compunction about sitting on the arm of someone else’s seat to have a chat with a friend on the other side of the aisle who they haven’t seen in a while.  Yet others appear to have extraordinarily weak bladders and are constantly in line. So, I came to the conclusion that if El Al were to develop a test whereby the company could determine whether potential passengers had ingested food and drink during the 24 hours prior to boarding a flight and if it prohibited the consumption of all food and liquid on their flights, then we might have a few quiet hours to contemplate how best to spend the precious time at our destination when we get there. And I bet that even the highly innovative Mr. Michael O’Leary of Ryanair hasn’t thought that one up!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HPyl2tOaKxM

Incidentally, on arrival in London and on logging on to the Internet, I did what curious (a.k.a. nosey) people are wont to do these days.  I googled “Dinka” and “Israel guide dog” and discovered that Dinka has visited the UK before.  On a previous visit, it turns out that she had fallen in love with Cosby, the black curly-haired Labrador who belongs to David Blunkett, the former UK Home Secretary (Minister of the Interior).  This time around, she is about to be feted on shabbat after synagogue service by the Masorti (Conservative) Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg of the New North London Congregation who has run a charity 10K with his dog Mitzpah to raise  funds for the Israel Guide Dog Centre for the Blind.  Dinka is a celebrity canine indeed! 

(http://www.nnls-masorti.org.uk/view_event.php?ID=1310)

Turning on the news on Tuesday morning, the Trump visit to the Middle East had vanished from the news in the UK as the mass murder of mainly young people (including children) at Manchester Arena the night before took over all news reporting, and continues into its third day.  This included news about the General Election, which is due to take place here in a fortnight’s time.  The cold-blooded liquidation of innocent civilians is odious enough but what makes it especially abominable is when such an act is perpetrated in the name of what many people still refer to as an all-merciful deity.  

At the end of our inevitable zombie day, which follows a day’s travel, we had a look to see how things were in the flat after a three-month long absence and to our horror, we discovered the return of the enemy.  Two (or was it three?) years ago, we arrived to find that our balcony had been used as a public latrine by the delinquent pigeons that share the mature trees in the garden outside with the squirrels.  So, we cleaned up the mess and then had a licensed pest removal expert — Jim, who hails from Ballybunion in County Kerry— erect netting around the balcony and this worked for quite some time. However, I noticed that on the far corner of the balcony, the netting had sagged, creating an entrance and an exit for the birdies.  It was then that I noticed our lodger, not an elderly man from Jerusalem, but one of the pigeons from the tree sitting upon an exquisitely designed and constructed nest into a considerable amount of avian labour had been invested.  What’s more, while I was watching, up it flew out through the opening, temporarily leaving a brace of pigeon eggs in the nest.  I had this feeling about the term “birdbrain” when observing the optimistic egret at Tel Aviv Port and now I’m convinced that birdbrains are only among humans!

Pigeons 2.1

Pigeons 1.1

Pigeons.1

Now, I should add that the last time he visited us, I had been informed and he himself had confirmed that Jim from Ballybunion held a licence to shoot pigeons.  He was rather keen to demonstrate his prowess in this regard by eliminating some of the birds as they sat in the trees waiting to aim their stuff at our balcony.  Not only did Jim have a licence to kill but he had also worked out a plan to make it work.  “This would be best done”, he said, “towards evening.  Do you think I could ask your neighbours if I could use their balcony? I’d get a better shot from there.” Well, his desire to demonstrate led to us to remonstrate and we made do with the bloodless solution of the netting, which, as I’ve said has worked until now.  We’ll see how things develop this time round.  Perhaps Tom Lehrer’s solution might work better.

And so, it was off to “initiate” a fortnight in London, which means that I know I’m there only after I’ve walked to the top of Primrose Hill and looked down upon the London skyline.  And quite magnificent it looked towards the end of May, with the trees in full leaf, and the leaves not showing even a single blemish of brown, which is what happen s towards the end of July as they begin their preparations for autumn.  Looking at the greenery and at the people doing their things—whether it’s sitting and contemplating, running, exercising, sparring or whatever— is always a refreshing sight

Primrose entrance1Primrose looking south1

Leaves1

Doing what they do

Sparring @ Primrose1

And then on the way home, I observed something that I’d never noticed previously in 16 years.  On England’s Lane, there are (or were) three restaurants — one Chinese, one Italian, one Indian.  I’d never thought about the escape for the ovens that these establishments operate — yet here they are, plain for all to see, on the rear of the buildings!

Chimneys

Finally, as an indication of what kind or people live in the neighbourhood, the enterprising Indian newsagent affixed this notice to the window of his shop.  Just think.  A year’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” bound up for you in a few minutes while you wait!  That puts things in some perspective!

Dissertation

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Maintaining sanity … sort of …

Early one morning

Being curled up behind a camera almost every day for two and half weeks is not much fun at my age and it’s taken me a full week to unwind and straighten out again — to be at least as upright (in a physical sense) as I’d been pre-Rubinstein.  After a while, you realise that there’s only a limited number of angles and locations from which you can get even a halfway decent shot of a pianist when your movement is restricted and the many pictures I took are all pretty similar.  Nevertheless you’re duty bound to keep waiting for something different even if you know more or less that nothing spectacular is going to happen, hence the peering, crouching and constant staring.

One of the ways of maintaining relative sanity during these photoshoot days at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and the Bronfman Auditorium was to get out each morning (with the camera, of course) just so as to remind myself that there are other photographable objects around.  In other words, it became more essential than ever to walk the walk in the streets and the park of North Tel Aviv.

But now let me get to a picture that is not even mine but which appeared in Haaretz newspaper on Thursday.  Ms. (Reserve Brigadier General) Miri Regev, former Israel Defence Forces Spokesperson and once described as the Likud party’s attack dog (as a female, I should really use a different word), and current Minister of Culture and Sport (a.k.a.—to me at least, it must be stated—the Minister for Kulturkampf), has argued that state-funded artists or organisations must show “loyalty” to the Israeli state and loyalty to the state apparently means agreeing with Ms. Regev.

She was absent from the prize award ceremony at the Rubinstein Piano Competition a week ago but nevertheless found time to attend the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival a few days ago, dressed in an outfit—a Jerusalem of Gold wedding gown to mark 50 years since the “reunification” of Jerusalem during the Six-Day War, replete with the Dome of the Rock on the front of the tarty dress—becoming of a right-wing politician who usually likes to carry her messages very audibly (and now also visually) to the people, whether or not they wish to hear or see her.   I can only presume that the unfortunate Israeli taxpayer, of which I am one, forked out for this kitschy outfit with a crude political message was well as for the trip to the French Riviera.  

Perhaps she sees herself as film star potential.  If so, I wonder in which film she might star.  Perhaps a Hebrew-language film based on a story inspired by Edvard Munch’s The Scream?  Tasteless?  Perhaps — but it smells foul.  However, nothing surprises one any more.

Regev

Ms. Regev not only makes a lot of noise but also has a firm belief in the supremacy of monologue over dialogue.  Allowing her opponents to get a word in edgewise or any other way is neither one of her attributes nor part of her credo.  As the army’s Chief Press and Media Censor a dozen or so years ago, she became accustomed to having the last word and still clings to the illusion that anyone who disagrees with her is, quite frankly, a potential Judas.  

She (as well as many of her right-wing colleagues) find the work of the Israeli NGO Breaking the Silence, army reserve officers who collect and provide testimonies about their military service in the Occupied Territories anathema.  She believes that they hurt Israel’s image by telling some truths and they certainly don’t make for congenial reading.  But she and the rest of them seem to have forgotten that the essence of a democracy is that different people have different takes on events and can express them.  And though many regard Breaking the Silence as no more than a troupe of quislings who endanger the security of the country, they themselves are regarded by many on the other side as even more dangerous to the safe future of the country.

A propos, two of the fire hydrants at Tel Aviv Port that I passed yesterday and which appear below reminded me of this particular NGO and its struggle with what has become mainstream right wing Israeli public interpretations of events.

Breaking the silence

Muzzled

Breaking the silence 1

Breaking the Silence

There are some other things I’ve noticed over the past three weeks walking through the park that indicate that there are some things that never change.  Next month, it seems, Tel Aviv will host performances by Gaston Ghrenassia (b. 1938), and Arnold George Dorsey (b. 1936) and in October, we get Harry Rodger Webb (b. 1940).  All of these young lads—better known as Enrico, Engelbert and Sir Cliff—are getting on in age; they are all a rather advanced 26 or 27 or thereabouts.  What I am sure of is that when they do arrive, the venues at which they appear to strut their stuff (although I think, perhaps, that strutting may be physically hazardous for them) will have to provide access and space for lots of wheelchairs, mobility scooters, and carers.  I can only hope that the fervour of these lads on stage and the excitement they engender in their ageing fans do not bring about multiple cases of heart failure or worse.

 

As I walked the promenade of Tel Aviv Port this week, I once more came across the egret that I have called “The Optimist”, recognisable by the ID ring on its left leg.  S/he is no bird-brain and has figured out that if you hang about the fishermen long enough and sidle up to them close enough, eventually they will feed you if only to be rid of you!

The optimist

Optimism pays off

It’s still spring in Tel Aviv these days although summer is making itself felt by hinting that it’s only a short time until we hit 33ºC+ and 80%+ humidity again, a situation that will last until October and perhaps later if we fail to pray hard and sincerely enough (so they try to convince us).  At any rate, spring means flowers and whereas we are wont to photograph pretty flowers in parks and gardens, there are also what I suppose might be called “feral flowers”.  These poppies were spotted above head height on patch of open ground between two houses on Dizengoff Street in North Tel Aviv (where else?).

Urban poppies

And then there are the signs that catch your eye.  This one on Nordau Boulevard caught mine.  I presume that it’s another instance of eternal optimism but this being Tel Aviv, you can never really be sure!

Really?

Declaring an area a designated cannabis zone is daring but not quite as daring as the couple who erected a tent near the mouth of the Yarqon stream (I’m presuming that it’s only a couple as the tent is small) and — as I photographed this just after 7 a.m. — cooked dinner and spent the night there.  I suppose it’s cheaper than staying in a hotel and presumably, they had read somewhere that there’s very little tidal movement on the Mediterranean so there was little danger of their bedroom becoming flooded. 

Camping out

For those who don’t actually sleep near the sea but just take their breakfast there, it’s often the same fare — cappuccino is one hand, cigarette in the other, and the inevitable smartphone somewhere in between.

Coffee, phone, cigarette

Well, the Rubinstein Competition is over bar the shouting and the “aftershocks”.  On Friday morning, I walked through the port again and guess what?  The Farmers’ Market is still going strong.  Usually, I find something worth photographing here, whether it’s shapes or colours or a combination of both.  The fungi on display often provide you with the basis for being creative and producing something that is aesthetically pleasing.

Mushrooms

And after the Farmers’ Market, it was time to return home, clean up and take ourselves to to the auditorium of the Israel Music Conservatory a couple of hundred metres down the street, where a rare family event was taking place with both Shuli and Tami performing together in the same concert — this one of Beethoven quartets—Op. 18(3) and Op. 59(1) if you’re interested in the detail.  We all — parents and daughters — seemed to enjoy it to the full and it certainly made a change from pianos!

Carmel Quartet at Stricker Conservatory

But I came back to the auditorium again for a while an hour later where the three prizewinners from the competition were talking about their experiences as competitors and pianists—and playing short pieces along with three of the Conservatory’s outstanding students.  I also wanted to see what they looked like in civvies — outside the concert or competition environment.  They seemed pretty normal to me, very talented and interesting young people!  The winner of the competition, Szymon Nehring from Poland (with microphone in hand), apologised for wearing shorts, teeshirt and flip-flops but nobody seemed to mind in the least, especially Szymon.

Nehring at Stricker Conservatory

And so, it’s time for a break, and couple of weeks in the “other place”.  We booked for London quite a while ago only to discover that the President of the United States, the one and only Donald Trump, is due to arrive directly from Saudi Arabia and will be received at the airport by an Israeli delegation at 12:15 p.m., a couple of hours after our flight is due to depart.  So I’m guessing that there might be some changes but nobody can yet tell me anything.  Maybe we’ll leave as scheduled; maybe we’ll be flown a day early or after the Donald leaves this place.  Perhaps he’s not coming at all and every bit of the ballyhoo and hype is just “fake news”; perhaps, God forbid, he’ll trip somewhere along the 75m of red carpet and damage his coiffure. If anything startling happens, you’ll likely hear about it before me.  But if I’m forced to wake up at 2 in the morning to catch a flight at 5 rather than a more leisurely 10.15, then it will be just one more — and this time eminently justifiable — reason for not being too fond of the man!

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A festival of youth!

Last Thursday night, I staggered into the apartment at a quarter past midnight, taking a late bus home from the Charles Bronfman Auditorium in Central Tel Aviv.  

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I had stayed on until the jury at the Arthur Rubinstein piano competition had delivered its verdict, the cheers had subsided and the throng of mostly middle-aged and older individuals who had just a few minutes earlier been the audience shuffled their way home (or at least, that’s what I presume they did as they didn’t appear to be a disco or nightclub crowd).  We had been treated to the second of two engrossing evenings of the six finalists with their backing group, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, which sounded in particularly good nick and was conducted by the young[ish] Israeli conductor Omer Meir Wellber.  (I say that Mr. Wellber at 36 is youngish because these days, for some peculiar reason, anyone under 50 appears young to me.  I wonder why?)

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Last notes of the 15th Rubinstein Competition: Daniel Ciobanu & Omer Wellber (together) 

The 30 competitors who started out on this trek for fame and glory nearly three weeks earlier had been given a wide choice of “Grand Concerto” repertoire in this final section of the competition, 20 in all from which to choose.  These included Beethoven’s three last concertos, two each by Chopin, Liszt, Brahms, Rachmaninov, Bartók and Prokofiev and one each by Chopin, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Grieg, and Ravel.  As luck would have it, the six finalists chose either Rachmaninov’s Third concerto (often referred to just as Rach3) or Prokofiev’s Third (Prok3)—not that things would have been all that different had six others reached the final round because 22 of the 30 competitors had chosen Rachmaninov or Prokofiev as their signing off piece.  

What this meant in reality was that on the first Finals night, we were treated to two interpretations of Rach3 before the interval and Prok3 following, and then Prok3/Rach3/Prok3 the following evening.  At least the orchestra only had to be ready with two pieces; the Jerusalem Camerata orchestra a couple of days earlier had to be ready with no fewer than five different Mozart concertos and Beethoven’s Second, an individual one for each competitor.

Fortunately for everyone, too, the three competitors on the Wednesday night were all playing on the Steinway piano and those the night following on the Fazioli, obviating the need for extensive furniture removals onstage and using the stage elevator to lower and raise the pianos as needed, thus saving us several minutes for each shift.

On the Wednesday, the first of the two Rach/Prok nights, I turned up at the box office to pick up my ticket and discovered that I had been allocated what was probably the best seat in the house for a photographer — Row 7, directly in front of the piano, with the keyboard directly in my line of view.  So I settled into my by now familiar and not very comfortable crouching position and was ready to shoot.  Unfortunately, (for me, that is), this turned out to be but theoretical.  Just five minutes before the start of the show, the well-heeled couple who had purchased their tickets settled into their seats in front of me and Yigal Mei-ron, my colleague in madness and the other volunteer photographer.  Yigal had at least been allocated the seat to my left, which was, providentially for him, adjacent to the aisle so he had some freedom of movement.  

My movements were restricted to say the least.  Whereas the gentleman of the couple in question wore a stylish trilby hat, he was kind enough to remove it before proceedings began.  She, however, wore her golden hair high in a bouffant-like style and there was really no way I could ask her to flatten or even smooth it.  She, as I soon discovered, was a side-to-side mover, a motion that she occasionally augmented with a slick variation, rolling back and forth in a rather prayer-like manner. Sometimes she gyrated doing both these manoeuvres simultaneously. This made both focussing and pressing the shutter button even more of a hit and miss affair than it had been throughout the competition.  Given what the logo on her jacket suggested, I assume these beautiful people had paid well for the privilege of sitting where they were, so there was little for me to do other than wish them a pleasant evening, smalltalk about pianos and pianists, and try and get on with my job. (Of course, I know that all that glisters is not gold and that the logo and the clothing might have been Chinese fakes provided online by Alibaba but somehow I greatly doubt that to be the case!)

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The following evening my fortunes were mixed as I had been given forewarning several weeks earlier that the organisers were wary of relying on two volunteer paparazzi and had therefore hired a couple of professionals to do a job they knew they could rely on.  As things turned out, two Israeli newspapers had also sent photographers along to cover proceedings on the second night (when the results of the competition were announced), so I knew that any photos I took would more likely be used in this blog rather than for the Arthur Rubinstein Society’s publicity purposes.  To add insult to injury (well, I wasn’t really insulted and I hadn’t been injured as I had understood full well the reasons for my demotion), I was given the last seat in the last row of the house, the seat I had used the previous evening having been given to one of the professional snappers.  There wasn’t a spare seat in a house with a capacity of 2,482 so Yigal valiantly offered and I gratefully agreed to alternate in the one seat we had between us in Row 7, with the other sitting on the aisle steps.

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w/ Yigal Meiron.  (Photo: Maxim Reider)

Needless to say, the same couple reappeared for the second night and took their positions as on the yestereve, the only difference being that Gucci-koochy-koo’s bobbing and weaving were even more extreme than on the first night.  She also wore a different Gucci outfit, whereupon, on checking out the Gucci website later on, I came to the startling conclusion that the clothing and footwear on display on the two nights were probably worth considerably more than the cameras and lenses I had with me in my [very non-Gucci] camera bag. (She also had less glitzy golden glitter on her cheeks than on the first night!)

Then for the music — 3 x Rach3, 3 x Prok3.  (This might sound like some terrible medical ailments or the doctors you might have to visit to have them fixed.  Although some people might agree with that interpretation, it’s far from what it was.)  

In the first half of the first night we had the 19-year old Jaehong Park—who hails from South Korea but whose clear English had traces of both American and English accents—playing Rach3.  He was followed by the diminutive and charming Sara Daneshpour from the USA with the same piece.  

My colleague, Yigal, who made no bones about not knowing too much about music (his speciality as an amateur photographer is sports photography) kept on telling me throughout the fortnight that Jaehong was his favourite competitor and he said it again this evening.  When I asked him why, exactly, it turned out that it had little to do with the sounds but with the fact that he felt that young Jaehong supplied photographers with the most amazing panoply of distorted expressions—grimaces, scowls, frowns, sneers, pouts, winceswhile in performance.  He also seemed particularly enamoured of decibels.   On hearing the piece a second time immediately after Mr. Park had concluded, Ms. Daneshpour allowed you to understand that this really was music; the contrast between the two players couldn’t have been more different.  

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After the interval, Xiaoyu Liu from Canada gave a wonderful performance of the Prokofiev.  Outwardly, of all the six performers, he seems to have been the most composed and the least ruffled, although I imagine that deep inside, things might be otherwise.  I provide two pics of Xiaoyu, as he bowed to the audience before and after his performance.  He appears completely relaxed in both pictures and they seem remarkably similar.  However, on closer observation, his jacket shows signs of the steam bath that was the pianist during the performance.  What had been simmering underneath the jacket, we can only guess.

Xiaoyu LIU (before)

Xiaoyu before

Xiaoyu LIU (after)

Xiaoyu after

And so we trooped home after Finals Night #1.

On the Thursday night, the Second Finals night and the one that everyone is waiting for as the results are announced, the order of the concertos was different.  Yevgeny Yontov was the surviving local gladiator and received a hero’s ovation from the home crowd with  loud shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” even before he had eased his frame on to the piano stool, something which would hardly have diluted the free flow of adrenalin through his system.  I had a feeling that perhaps he was glad just to have got to the finals and consequently was just giving a concert rather than competing—although he was, of course, definitely competing.  Given that because of the division of labour among we pair of photographers I had missed both of his recitals and his performance of a classical concerto in the earlier rounds and had only heard him in the chamber music section (where I thought he was superb, iPad and all), I was impressed (and he won the prize for the best performance of chamber music).

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Yevgeny was followed by Szymon Nehring, the 22-year old Polish lad who since the first round, many people seemed to think might be a winner.  His performance of the concerto was indeed polished.  It was astounding and I thought that in the din of appreciation that followed, the roof of the auditorium might cave in.  As we filed out of the auditorium at the interval, the general feeling was that nothing, but nothing, could be better than that.  

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Hot work winning the Rubinstein Competition

And then, the last competitor, Daniel Ciobanu from Romania, decided to give it his best and out-Szymon Szymon, if you know what I mean.  And I believe that he did.  One indicator of how good a performance he provided us with was to observe the reactions of the orchestra musicians and the ovation that they gave him — applause, shouts of ‘Bravo’, foot-stamping, and all the rest.  That, at least, told you which pianist they enjoyed working with most.

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So we kicked our heels for an hour until the bells rang and about 80% of what had been a completely capacity house, the audience filed back into hall to hear the speeches and then the results.  Mercifully, the speeches were short and, surprise of surprises, Mrs. Miri Regev, the Israeli Minister for Kulturkampf didn’t turn up at the event but sent a senior Ministry functionary, who rejoices in the wonderful and wondrous name of Fortuna Galit Wahabba-Shashu, instead.  Amazingly, the lady shook hands with the finalists individually and then spoke some common sense, in Hebrew and English, for five minutes—a virtuoso performance for a civil servant.  (I had actually been looking forward to a full-scale riot, expecting Mrs. Regev to turn up and berate the “elitist” nature of the competition but all we got was about five seconds of whistles and boos at the mention of her name.  One person I know well described her absence as “cowardly” but I think she’s smarter than I gave her credit for in the past and decided it was best not to be lynched by an elitist horde.

And then we got to the meat of the matter.  The minor prizes came first — audience prizes, best young competitor, best Israeli competitor, etc., etc.  The six young people on the stage looked relaxed enough but I’m sure that they wanted to know the result even more than we, the audience.  Then, we got to the first major award — the prize for the best performance of chamber music.  This went to the local trooper, Yevgeny Yontov and everyone seemed very happy about that.  Then came the announcement of the three finalists who were joint runners-up, i.e., they can say on their CVs that they were finalists — Park, Yontov and Liu.  So at least we now knew who the three medallists are.  

A little more blah-blah and we learned that third place went to Sara Daneshpour who, at 30 was one of the oldest contestants and my guess is that this will be her last competition; she’s already got a career going and 3rd place in the Rubinstein Competition is a decent addition to a CV.  

Then when the International Jury was introduced (again) to the audience and were paraded out on to the stage, the Chairman of the Jury, Arie Vardi, somehow eventually got around to announcing that Daniel Ciobanu had been awarded second prize.  So now we all knew who the winner was even before Szymon Nehring raised his tall frame off the chair to receive his award.  Looking at the six young pianists on stage, I got the feeling that they knew who the winner was long before names were announced. Certainly, there was no element of surprise as there had been at the same event three years earlier.

And so it was over and time to go home.  Unlike some other Rubinstein competitions, where one competitor was so much better than the others that right from the get-go, the competition was about who would take second place, this one kept you guessing right to the very end.  And also unlike other competitions, there didn’t seem to be any murmur of dissent from the audience — and Israeli audiences can make their feelings quite clear when they think it desirable that they make them known to the powers-that-be.  Moreover, the overall standard was so high here at the 15th Rubinstein that each recital, each concert, was an event within itself, which left you gasping for breath and muttering under what breath remained that these people can’t be mostly just in their early and middle 20s.

Several things remain in my mind and I feel compelled to write them.  Just as most people who attend concerts have little idea or even interest in the preparation that goes into them to make them a success, the same or more is true for an event like this competition.  It is run by only three full-time staff members, all women.  We volunteers help out to the best of our ability when needed.  I guess that there might be a short break until preparations begin for the 16th contest due in 2020, if they’re not already under way.  The decisions that have to be taken—the search for suitable contestants, the organisation of a selection committee, the conscription of jury members, of musicians, or orchestras, of audio and video technicians, of PR people.  The mind boggles.  The public sees and hears a well-oiled competition but is unaware of what goes on behind the scenes before, during and after.  But then why should they be aware?

Then there are the people on the spot who make things tick such as Ilan, the house manager for the first week and a half at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, who ensured that things ran like clockwork, right down to the stopwatch — or the digital equivalent of one — that he carried around with him.  The only evident glitch in the proceedings during the two and a half weeks was during the second round in the Museum when somewhere from the depths of the complex, the sound of heavy construction drilling made itself heard several times — and about 10 minutes passed before the culprits were located.  The pianist on stage at the time, rejoicing in the name of Scipione Sangiovanni, remained onstage while this racket ensued, enveloped in a trance, continuing to play.  In retrospect, he might have done himself a favour had he stopped and complained, providing us with some loud operatic expletives in Italian.

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Shuly (Executive Producer) & Ilan (House Manager) at a rare quiet moment

The piano technicians are really the forgotten men of this competition, for they work literally day and night, usually when everyone else has long gone, to ensure that these large black musical warhorses remain in pristine aural condition throughout the whole period.  Two of them stayed on until the bittersweet end—David Kinney from Sydney who was the Fazioli slave and Thomas Lepler from Hamburg who did the same for the Steinway.  Without them, there wouldn’t be instruments to play on, for sure.  But, as David wrote to me after I had written to them in appreciation: “… piano technicians are accustomed to working alone behind the scenes. The true heroes are the young pianists who walk the tightrope of perfect performance in view of countless critical opinions!”

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So, finally, there are the kids themselves.  They really are just kids but they’re an amazing bunch and, it would seem, quite normal and extremely bright and talented.  Without them, as David said, there would be no competition at all.  

You know, at one point in my career, in what sometimes seems like another existence, I used to think I understood a something about festivals and perhaps I did know just a little!  So it struck me while I was writing this post that the truth is that in addition to being a piano competition, this whole event — The Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition — is really a festival of youth — and of some very talented youth indeed!   1998 Waterman (1998) — Carnivals for Elites? The cultural politics of arts festivals

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Two finalists out of three

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Two finalists and one winner out of three

And that’s it.  I’m glad it’s over and that I can straighten my back once again.  I’m glad that I was there because it’s an fascinating experience.  I’m not sure that at 75 (should I be still around) that I’d want to do it again as a photographer.  Then again, camera technology is constantly developing and I imagine that by 2020, image stabilisation in cameras will have improved so much that even a doddery 75-year old could take good pictures without any sign of camera shake!

Failing that, I might volunteer to put tickets in envelopes or usher old people to their seats in the hall, making sure that I retain a good seat for myself—and not behind another Gucci-koochy-koo! 

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Knackered, shattered, bone-weary

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I am completely knackered.  I mean totally shattered.  I mean I’m exhausted like I haven’t been for quite some time.  Not mentally but physically.  I’ve spent most of the past 12 days in a position somewhere between crouching and sitting, sort of curled up with my right eye glued to a camera viewfinder, mostly at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, photographing the first two stages of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition. I couldn’t really use the monitor at the back of the camera because it seems that that might have disturbed members of the [paying] audience, who form an important element in the success of the competition, not to mention of the Arthur Rubinstein International Music Society’s finances.  Having said that, several members of the audience (and of the jury and others associated with the competition) seem to have little compunction about using their smartphones to communicate with the outside world while these 30 young people played their guts out vying for the First Prize and Gold Medal—as well as the unmentionable $40,000—and (more importantly) a list of concerts and recitals, including at Carnegie Hall and Wigmore Hall.

The reason, of course, that I’m sitting curled up and waiting to pounce is that I have to take some dramatic pictures of the pianists performing.  The lighting is the hall is worse than awful; I’m not permitted to move around or use a flash but at least electronic shutters solve the issue of clicks these days, saving me from sitting with my finger on the button waiting until a competitor plays fortissimo before I can release it without anyone hearing.  Though I’ve discovered the small number of vantage points from which it has been possible to get halfway decent photos (which served me well at least while the competitors were performing solo), my interest has somehow vanished a little from the photographic, if not from the pianistic, side of things.  

There are two other volunteer photographers doing the rounds as well, and the three of us seem to be of like mind in this respect.  By the time we reached midway through the second stage of the competition on Wednesday, four days ago, there was a very definite feeling that all that was changing in the photographs were the faces.  

And as nobody has yet fallen off a piano stool or no frustrated competitor has got up to close the piano lid and do a tap dance on top, we plod on.  

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Luka Okros performs Betty Olivero’s “On Water, Wind and Bells”

And what do we photograph?  Hands, facial expressions, and best of all — if you can get it — a drip of perspiration that trickles down the forehead, dribbles on to the nose and then, on a sforzando, flies off into the ether, landing with a soundless splat on the piano keys.  They’re hard to catch on camera but the videos do a great job. See: (http://www.arims.org.il/videos/live-videos/)   

There was a day off from competition on Monday as it was Israel’s Remembrance Day but the battle restarted on Tuesday afternoon when the 16 semi-finalists went through their paces, two at a time in eight sessions; I crouched through six of these.  All in all, somewhere between 50 and 60 different pieces were performed.  

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Xiaoyu Liu (Canada)

However, as luck would have it, before the last of these warrior-virtuosi had done his bit, I had got the shots I needed and had scarpered down to the cafeteria before the hordes descended on it.  Had I waited, I would have stood in line but not have had a chance of getting anything to drink.  But as is my wont, with my perfect timing, it seems as if I missed the sensation of the round when this 25-year old Romanian, Daniel Ciobanu, played, acted and lived Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.  From the lobby outside the sturdy (but hardly soundproof) wooden doors to the auditorium, the ovation was indeed deafening and as the audience streamed out agitatedly, it sounded like they, at least, had discovered a winner.  (On returning home later that evening, we watched Ciobanu’s performance from the comfort of the living room sofa and thought that the “acting” part was, how shall I say, overdone.  

Then a couple of days later, I mentioned this to the abundantly affable and extremely knowledgeable Gerrit Glaner, Head of the Concert and Artists Department at Steinway in Hamburg, while sharing a taxi back to Tel Aviv.  He responded that when you come across a pianist like that—and he gave Lang Lang, who he handles, as an example—you must close your eyes and just listen to the sounds that come out of the piano.  So I learned something new—one must definitely listen but one need not look if it’s bothersome.

And, yes, there are six finalists.  Thursday afternoon was pruning day and it really was chop-chop as the sixteen were whittled down to just six in less than 45 minutes; it must have been fairly easy to come to a decision.  Of course, the one competitor I liked most (but who am I to judge?) didn’t make the run-off, as I expected, but I still think he was the best of the bunch; and although he was disappointed, he thought he played well, too. There was none of the artificial dramatic suspense that accompanies [recorded] TV programmes such as the Great British Bake-off or MasterChef when results are announced.  Here, those progressing to the final round were announced by their number in the draw and their name and the ten remaining on stage were handed a complimentary envelope as their roles in the competition faded into the ether.  It was all over in less than a minute and a half. (Interestingly, the Junior Jury’s choice—yes, there is such a thing but I’m not quite sure why—was almost entirely different to that of the official jury.

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Romania (25), Poland (21), USA (30), Korea (18), Israel (28), Canada (19)

And so, the time had arrived for each competitor to become a musical collaborator rather than a solo actor in the chamber music part of the competition.  Sometimes, those who decide ask the pianists perform piano quintets (piano + string quartet), sometimes wind quartets or quintets (piano + a combination of wind instruments), sometimes piano quartets (piano, violin, viola and cello).  This is a piano quartet year.  

So Friday marked a welcome (to me at least) change to the competition as it entered its third phase and the six finalists play what they’ve selected from the piano quartet repertoire chosen for them by the organisers. Alongside them were three experienced Israeli string players: Sergey Ostrovsky, the first violinist of the Aviv String Quartet and former concertmaster of the Orchestre de la Suisse RomandeGilad Karni, principal violist of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra and Hillel Zori, Professor and Head of Strings at the Buchmann–Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University.   It can’t be easy for anyone concerned — neither the pianists nor the string players.  Although all three string players are experienced chamber musicians, they don’t perform together regularly and until the day prior to the performance had never met the pianists, let alone played with them.  Two of the string players at least had done some homework and used the Internet streaming to watch some of the pianists with whom they were going to play so they had a rough sketch of their musical personalities.  And then it was off to rehearse, 45 minutes with each player and that’s it.

On Friday afternoon the first three competitors—from Korea, USA and Canada, respectively, performed quartets by Schumann, Mozart, and Fauré and then, on the  morning following, the other three musical warriors—from Israel, Poland and Romania—played quartets by Brahms, Fauré (again) and Schumann (again).  All quite different to their solo performances.

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Daniel Ciobanu performs the Schumann Piano Quartet

Although I hadn’t been successful in capturing the dripping and dribbling perspiration in the earlier rounds, I did manage to find something else ephemeral in the Schumann Piano Quartet, performed in the chamber music section of the competition,  the composer requires the cellist to retune the C string down to B for the last 42 bars of the third movement; the cellist hasn’t much more than about 25 seconds to negotiate this tricky business—and as most people are unaware of what’s going on, it looks as if the cellist is trying to spoil the party.

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Today, (Sunday) there are rehearsals of the classical concerti with the Jerusalem Camerata Orchestra.  Hard work for the orchestra as here, the six competitors have each selected a different concerto — four Mozarts and two Beethovens.  

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Daniel Ciobanu rehearses with the Camerata

Fortunately for the stage managers, the first three are performing on the Steinway piano and the others on the Fazioli.  Kawai didn’t make it into the last lap of the race.  By the time I reached the Museum late in the afternoon, the Steinway had already departed the Recanati Auditorium and after the rehearsal is over, the circus finally picks up its last bags as the Fazioli joins its adversary a couple of kilometres down the road in the Bronfman Auditorium. (It’s a place that used to be called the Mann Auditorium until, apparently, Seagrams made a handsome donation some years back. It is known in Hebrew as Heikhal HaTarbut, which translates into English as the Culture Palace, a term that has something of a Soviet-style resonance about it).  Here, the two large black warhorses will remain until the bittersweet ending on Thursday night.

Meanwhile, as a sort of break, I joined a bus tour yesterday and we visited the Arthur Rubinstein Panorama—something I didn’t know existed—a memorial site located  near the Kennedy Memorial in the hills just outside Jerusalem. Designed by landscape architect Joseph Segall, it includes a memorial stone and a sculpture consisting of stone pillars at disparate angles, which protrude from the side of the ridge like an untidy heap of piano keys.  

Rubinstein Panorama

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Rubinstein himself chose the site as the place where he wanted his ashes buried.  Or as Lady Annabelle Weidenfeld, who knew Arthur better than anyone else in the group, explained, he wanted to be cremated and have his ashes scattered over the forest.  However, as cremation is frowned upon in Jewish law and was impossible in Israel then (it is apparently possible now but if so, extremely rare) it was decided that this was the next best thing.  Several read quotations from various sources and recited blessings, drank a toast to Arthur and then we were off.  

Annabelle was with Menahem Pressler, who, having had life-saving or death-defying surgery a couple of years ago, is on the concert circuit once again as a 93-year old youngster.  He’s due to perform in Jerusalem in November in the Mozart double concerto with 40-year old Iddo Barshai and that is a concert we won’t miss.  I mentioned to Gerrit Glaner that I thought that this was an example of optimism at its best and Gerrit told me that he’s fully booked for the next three years and intends to go on performing because Mieczysław Horszowski’s final performance was when he was 99 and he gave his last lesson a month before his 101st birthday, a week before his death!  So there!

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Menahem Pressler, with Gerrit Glaner, Annabelle Weidenfeld & Idith Zvi (Artistic Director)

Four more days to go and then I can relax a little, trash the photos I don’t need and get back to regular PhotoGeoGraphy.  Oh, I’m hoping that Mrs. Regev, our Minister of Kulturkampf is on top form at the prize-giving ceremony on Thursday night as I haven’t yet managed to photograph a real riot and she is the likeliest person I can think of capable of sparking one!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dKeqaDSjy98

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UGaIb7Nbgk

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The struggle continues …

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Today, I have a day off.  After five days of traipsing around with photographic equipment after pianists and their handlers, today is Remembrance Day in Israel and as such, places of entertainment are shut and consequently there are no piano recitals.  That being so, this gives everyone concerned with the Rubinstein Piano Competition time to recharge their batteries, including those in my cameras.

Yesterday was the last day of the first stage of the competition.  All in all, 30 competitors performed about 100 different piano pieces, some of which were heard more than once, which was only to be expected.  As one of two volunteer photographers at this event, it’s my job to ply the PR company hired by the competition organisers with the pictures they need and/or demand.  It’s this sort of thing that makes me glad that I’m not a professional press photographer.  

In this situation, although they want fairly standard photographs, in order to maintain your own soundness of mind, you’re always on the lookout for some special image that will make people sit up and take notice. You know the sort of thing I mean. Like when a piano leg collapses or the lid of the concert grand snaps shut just as the pianist is playing a gentle pianissimo and s/he jumps up in shock, falls down off the piano stool—only to be caught by a gallant on-duty piano tuner.  Well, no such luck as that exists, I can assure you.

We are extremely limited as to where we can plonk ourselves.  If the auditorium isn’t full, we have some choice in that we can sit in those seats that haven’t been sold.  However, experience indicates that as the competition progresses, the seats available become scarcer.  More significantly, the video people are more in evidence — and it’s not worth even trying to remonstrate with them and their own sense of self-importance.  They take precedence over us, the silly stillies, which is what we two are. 

So what are the possibilities? Ideally, you’d like to be able to wander around freely from location to location, offstage and onstage, and photograph whatever seems most appropriate to the movements and expressions of the individual artists.  However, if you tried that, you’d probably be manhandled by one of the larger members of the audience while another one alerts one the security guards before they cart you off to the nearest police station.  As with most things most of the time, you have to deal with the real world rather than an ideal one.

If you choose to seat yourself in the one of the rear rows on the right-hand side (looking towards the stage), you can see the pianists’ facial expressions but not normally their hands.  To see hands from that particular position, you have to know or at least to guess when they are going to raise them in order to create some dramatic effect.  So from there, you concentrate on looks and appearances.  If you choose to situate yourself on the opposite side of one of the rear rows, you see hands with fingers and a back; occasionally, should the performer remember that s/he has an audience and/or s/he loses concentration for a while (which really never happens), you get to see a face, too.  An alternative is to move yourself lower down one of the seats near the stage.  If you set yourself down near the middle of the front row, you can really get some wonderful shots of perspiration dripping off the unfortunate’s face but not much else.  And if things get really boring, you can always take a picture of the feet operating the pedals, which isn’t all that interesting after you’ve exhausted three or four shoe styles—unless some female participant’s long evening dress gets caught between her shoes and the pedals.  Not much hope of that, either!

If you move along to the right-hand side of the front row, you see nothing at all of much interest except the large flower vase containing several tall flowers that adorn the stage and block your view.  (It appears that none of the competitors is allergic to perfume or pollen.)  Two or three rows further up, near the wall, gives you an angle of view that allows you to see the faces in detail and gives you what seems—at first—to be an interesting frame.  Normally, our cameras give us a rectangular frame with a 4:3 or 3:2 ratio; we can even get a 1:1 (square) frame in certain circumstances.  Once we upload an image to the computer we are free to work out any other ratio between the sides of the frame that suits us.  However, from the right-hand side of the auditorium we get the triangle, a plane figure with three straight sides and three angles, in this case formed by the piano frame, the lid and the lid prop. Wonderful as this triangular frame (and variations of it) seems at first, you quickly realise that using it too often simply results in a different face at the centre of the picture.  In other words, it’s hackneyed.

Bottom right (Fei Fei Dong)

Variations on a triangle (bottom right, Auditorium) — Fei Fei Dong

So off you go in search of something more exciting—or at least different.  The problem is that the something more exciting is rather rapidly likely to become overused as well.   So where does one go for something slightly different?  Well, backstage, of course!  Backstage??? you may well ask — what could possibly be there?  The answer to that is that you discover slits and cracks that allow you shoot pictures at different angles.  But then, when you are photographing 30 pianists, even a multitude of slits and gaps between curtains leaves you a little short.  But, dogged as you are, you plod and slog backwards and forwards behind the stage looking for that something different, hoping all the time that you won’t fall over yourself, drop the camera with a loud bang or otherwise disturb the proceedings.  

Head-on slit (Natalia Milstein)

Head-on triangle, backstage, right (Natalia Milstein)

Backstage (Eric Lu)

Backstage, narrow slit (Eric Lu)

And while you’re doing all this, you somehow try to keep one ear fixed on the performance onstage because whatever happens to half of the competitors—and you know that half of them must say farewell to Tel Aviv on the day or the morrow they are voted off—they are all pretty good.

Meanwhile, you look again for something a little bit different to photograph.  Like the International Jury for this competition.  I got the feeling that they were none too keen as they have but half an hour’s break between sessions and would like to relax a little while having a light lunch.  Nevertheless, what must be done must be done as it comes with the job.

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The Jury (+ one minder and one keeper) & the Artistic Director

And, yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, as we all knew of course, the first batch of refugees from the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition were expelled, if not quite into oblivion then to compete somewhere else in the near future against other 20-something hopefuls.  You can’t help but feel for these young people.  They’ve embossed into their brains hundreds of thousands of notes in the correct order and worked their fingers off for years to make sure that they play what was printed on the page in the correct sequence, only to be told in a matter of about five minutes that they haven’t made the grade.  And they all looked so happy-go-lucky just a few minutes before the executioner walked into the hall with his list of numbers and names.  (The executioner in this case was Arie Vardi, the Chairman of the Jury, who was quick to point out that he had voted for several of those who hadn’t passed muster.)

Happy-go-lucky

Happy-go-lucky

Awaiting the verdict 2017

Awaiting the verdict

Home tomorrow 2017

The guillotined

Living to fight another day 2017

Ready for further battles

At this stage, you begin to ask yourself what might have gone wrong for those decapitated on the pianoforte block. (In my case, liking someone’s performance more often than not amounts to a kiss of death but I don’t really think that my preferences were communicated to the members of the jury).  One of the contestants, who played an absolutely blistering Liszt sonata chose to play on the Fazioli instrument, which is definitely suited to that kind of playing.  Unfortunately (to my ear), the first item on his programme was a Passacaglia by Couperin and performing that on a Fazioli is like asking a prima ballerina to dance Swan Lake in wading boots.  The pianists who chose the Kawai appeared to have had a problem with the pedals in that it seemed to me that I was hearing their feet as well as their fingers—but that might have been no more than hallucination on my part.  But I have no doubt that the judges were listening in an entirely different way to me and most of the audience and are trained to pick up things and recognise traits that ordinary mortals are not aware of.  Several of them make copious notes as the performers perform and one of them was rash enough to leave an iPad open as I passed by.

Notes

An unforeseen plus of walking around the auditorium look for shooting angles is that I have now discovered some, if not all, of the passageways that line the perimeter of the auditorium.  I have learned how to reach a loo without leaving the hall.  I have discovered the main passageway from the cafeteria to the backstage area.  Importantly, I have uncovered a door that leads to a set of stairs that brings me into the back of the auditorium without having to face down one of the powerful Russian-speaking ladies (most of them are actually quite pleasant once you pierce their Soviet-style armour) who guard the heavy—but far from soundproof—doors through which the throng enters and exits the hall.  I also found out that the two dressing rooms assigned to the competitors each have electronic keyboards so that fingers are loose before appearing on stage.

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Anyway, a photographer needs something else to photograph in order to keep himself sane.  So, on the way out of Tel Aviv Museum en route home, I noticed this wonderful piece of art.

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Henry Moore: Reclining Figure (& cat)

And just to bring me back to the real world, there’s a message from my evergreen blue and white colleen, She-who-Must-be-Obeyed, asking me to pick up some lettuce and cucumbers from the local greengrocer on the way home. 

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And so, I return to the real world, in which today, Israel remembered its fallen soldiers and tomorrow will celebrate its 69th Independence Day — and I can have one more evening of absolutely mind-numbing tedium as the World Snooker Championship comes to its end before returning to action at Tel Aviv Museum tomorrow afternoon.

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