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: (   

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.  


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!


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