This week and for the following fortnight and a half, had things gone according to plan and had there been no crass interruption from the deadly Coronavirus, I would have been crouched somewhere in the Recanati Auditorium of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, lining up shots of the competitors at the 16th Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competition, just as I did in 2014 and 2017. However, this year is different and there will be no competition until the world reverts to normal or emerges into a new normal, whatever and whenever that might be. In that respect, your guess is as good as mine, as is anyone else’s.
So instead of crouching on the steps of the auditorium or peering through cracks and openings from backstage, searching for the perfect shot, we are being given a treat at home every day at 18.00 hrs Israel time (GMT+3) on Facebook and thereafter on YouTube featuring winners of and contestants in previous iterations of the Rubinstein Competition.
To tell the truth, I’m not entirely sure that I could have managed a fortnight and more of this kind of event any more. It’s a lot of effort for the few photographs that might be used by the organizers for publicity and advertising and, as I discovered six years ago although it took me the two weeks for it to sink in, one only needs a minimal number of pictures of each competitor—a bow to the audience prior to performing, deep concentration before hands touch the keyboard, some facial expressions during performance and the raising of the arms above the head at the conclusion of what most of the contestants think is their prize-winning recital/concert—except for the expression of utter failure on the part of those who just know that it isn’t.
And then, when you succeed in taking a really good photo and the organizers do use it and you find that you haven’t been credited, it’s a little annoying, as was the case with the picture below, which appeared in the Wigmore Hall programme for his prizewinner’s recital later in 2017. But such is life. Notwithstanding my kvetching, it was a wonderful experience. The first one, six years ago, was the best photography workshop I could have attended; I learned so much on the job, as it were. And there were so many interesting people from all over the world to chat with. Vivien tells me that I would return each day on a high although I can’t honestly say that I remember it quite that way!
Daniel Ciobanu and Sara Daneshpour, 2nd and 3rd Prizewinners, 2017
So what do we do these days? We spend some of the time watching TV, listening to radio (preferably not to the news) and reading. One the more interesting items we watched this week was a four-way Zoom conversation between four orchestra conductors. This conversation was hosted by Alan Gilbert, former Music Director of the New York Philharmonic currently resident in Sweden, and included Simon Rattle, Music Director of the LSO, who lives in Berlin, Daniel Harding a youngish British conductor living in Paris, and a relative newcomer to the scene, Karina Canellakis, conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra whose mentors were Gilbert and Rattle
It was a fascinating conversation and some of the the things they had to say sounded vaguely familiar. OK, so they’re artists and consequently, they all miss performing in front of an audience and I know that because I hear the same complaint from both our daughters who are professional musicians and miss performances as well as the meagre income it brings because there are no performances, no concerts, a point made by Simon Rattle re the musicians in his LSO, who are not salaried. He reckoned that most could probably manage until the summer after which they would be facing a major problem.
However, one of the major points made was that they all thought that during this Coronavirus-enforced time off, spending more time at home, they would all have the time to study scores they would be performing some time later in the year or next year and they all found that it was well nigh impossible to concentrate. They were also of the opinion that when things are “over” and they can get back to work, they will find that there is a “new normal” and it may take time before they’d be able to conduct a full orchestra of 100-120 players playing to an audience of 2,000. Indeed, they thought that it might be altogether impossible for a long time, which might mean adjusting their programmes and putting in place pieces they could form with smaller ensembles.
Probably the most fascinating point of all was raised by Simon Rattle who said “If we’re learning anything from this, it’s how vitally important it [the arts in general and music in particular] is. The wonderful stage director and actor from England, Simon McBurney, said to me ‘One day people will also realize that we [artists] are also essential workers. We’re the garbage collectors of the soul. They’re going to need everything the arts can give and we should be ready to give it at a moment’s notice.'”
All of this reminded me of a quotation that appeared in Robert Philip’s book Performing Music in the Age of Recording in which the author, E.M. Forster, a regular attendee at the famous chamber music concerts at London’s National Gallery run by the pianist Dame Myra Hess every weekday during World War II. Forster, who wasn’t a musician, wrote an essay on what it was like to be in the audience:
“ … If the soul of an audience could be photographed it would resemble a flight of scattering dipping birds, who belong neither to the air nor the water nor the earth. In theory the audience is a solid slab, provided with a single pair of enormous ears, which listen, and with a pair of hands, which clap. Actually it is that that elusive scattering flight of winged creatures, darting around, and spending much of its time where it shouldn’t, thinking now ‘How lovely!’, now ‘My foot’s gone to sleep’, and passing in the beat of a bar from ‘There’s Beethoven back in C minor again’ and ‘Did I turn the gas off or I do think he might have shaved’. Meanwhile Beethoven persists, Beethoven does not flicker, Beethoven plays himself through. Applause. The piano was closed, the instruments re-enter their cases, the audience disperses more widely, the concert is over.
Over? But is the concert over? Here was the end, had anything an end, but experience proves that strange filaments cling to us after we have been with music, that the feet of the birds have, as it were, become entangled in snares of heaven, that while we swooped hither and thither so aimlessly we were gathering something, and carrying it away for future use … The concert is not over when the sweet voices die. It vibrates elsewhere. It discovers treasures which would have remained hidden, and they are the chief part of the human heritage.”
And that’s how much we need music and the rest of the arts in these days of Coronavirus!
Slowly but surely the lockdown in Israel is being lifted. Whether this is due primarily to good scientific reasoning, political expediency, or public pressure in the form of “we’ve had enough of being confined to our homes for almost two months” is a moot point. Probably it’s a combination of these factors and more. Interviewed on a TV news broadcast at the weekend on a beautiful spring day, one Tel Aviv resident explained to the interviewer when asked why he had chosen to go out without a mask and into an area in which the 2-metre social distancing concept appeared to have become just a memory, his response was very straightforward: “I’d prefer to pay a 500 shekel fine to the government than to pay a psychiatrist 1,000 shekels.” As simple and uncomplicated as that. And when you think about it a little, people have been locked in their homes for so long in Tel Aviv and have been pretty diligent about distancing and masks, how many people are there around to get infected by to contaminate?
Still things are far from being normal. Grades 1-3 and 11-12 have returned to school with strict social distancing, very regular hand-washing and other strict rules the order of the day.
One of the more disturbing aspects of the spread of this disease and the whole lockdown episode is the publication through social media of umpteen+1 conspiracy theories, many of which involve the suppose roles played by Jews in general and Israel in particular in the origin and diffusion of the virus.
One Iranian TV channel has apparently asserted that Zionist elements developed a deadlier strain of coronavirus specifically for use against Iran, one journalist tweeting that he’d rather take his chances with the virus than consume an Israeli vaccine. Various Arab media outlets have accused both Israel and the United States of creating and spreading COVID-19 as well as bird flu and SARS. The supposition that Jews manufactured COVID-19 to precipitate a global stock market collapse and thereby profit via insider trading has also been aired, as has the idea that Israel will come up with a vaccine, which it will then sell to Big Pharm thereby profiting from the world’s ills. One columnist for a Turkish outlet even asserted that such a vaccine might just be a scheme to carry out global mass sterilization! Jews have also been accused by the alt-Right in the United States for perpetuating the lockdowns in various states, thereby endangering the well-being of U.S. businesses.
So in order to escape from these antisemitic innuendoes, I decided to re-read a novel based on some real antisemitism, Robert Harris’s An Officer and a Spy, which I read six years ago and “enjoyed”. This time, I read it from beginning to end in a day and a half. I’d forgotten how much information was in it and how Harris’s in-depth research and reading and wonderful writing turns an unfortunate historical event into a unputdownable thriller. Alas, it also made me wonder how antisemitism was so deeply rooted in France (as in many other places)—and why.
Of course, the extended length of time we’ve been forced to spend at home means that some us have discovered hidden talents. Tami, who in normal times plays cello, has found that painting is relaxing although she relates that until a couple of weeks ago, she’d never held a paintbrush in her hand!
And last week saw Independence Day …
… and May Day.
One of my neighbours was quite happy about celebrating both these events draping the Israeli flag alongside a red one. He’s also neglected to remove the election banner informing all and sundry that he’s a supporter of the Joint Arab List, which is an unusual sight in this part of the world, in North Tel Aviv.
On Independence Day, the park authorities were so concerned that social distancing should prevail and that people should be prevented from barbecuing and turning the park into one large cloud of searing flesh smelling smoke…
… that they actually locked all the public toilets in the park the day before — to the consternation of those 75-year olds and older who enjoy a walk in the park but find that they have more and narrower “windows of opportunities” than before! …
… and here we are, a week later, and they’re still locked, something that has required me to become a bushman on more than one occasion!
This year, Independence Day in the park seemed even quieter than the Day of Atonement so empty was it! In fact, it was so empty that these two crows were convinced that they had the whole place to themselves and were able to take full pleasure in whatever had entered their birdbrains!
Masks are now obligatory and not wearing one outside is reason to apply a fine. Here and there, the public is reminded that they need to be worn though I suppose the most efficient way ensuring that this ruling is complied with is by giving hefty fines, as I discovered yesterday when I went to the greengrocer and was told to replace the mask that I’d just moved down to my chin as it seems as if they received a fine the previous day for not wearing masks in the section of the shop that is open to the street.
One gets used to masks and they appear to have mutated into fashion accessories for some over the past fortnight or so.
And then at Tel Aviv Port, all sorts of activity.
Anyway, it’s springtime. The jacarandas are in blossom and like spring, they won’t last long. Let’s hope that the scientists are right and come the summer and hot weather, Coronavirus won’t last long on surfaces and we won’t have to continue wearing masks because they’re uncomfortable enough in warm mild weather; I can’t imagine what it will be like in 35 degrees Centigrade and 80 percent Relative Humidity,
Oh! I almost forgot. Today, Israel will have a new government (not the one I would have liked to see) headed by the Israel’s 21st century equivalent of Harry Houdini, a.k.a. Bibi Netanyahu, whose message to his supporters can be seen on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv, and appears below.
Have a wonderful week!