You don’t have to be a pianist, but you do have to be a musician that we know and respect, to be invited as a juror of the competition,” comments Idith Zvi, as she invites me into her small office, which has a grand piano and is filled with portraits of Arthur Rubinstein.
As the society’s artistic director, she (with only the help of a small staff) manages all efforts that make the Arthur Rubinstein Society and International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv, Israel, the renowned arena it has become for young pianists. For young pianists who like a challenge that is, since word is out that this competition is one of the difficult ones.
According to the brochure, founding director Jan Jacob Bistritzky’s aim was to “link the artistic legacy of Arthur Rubinstein with the cultural life of Israel.”
Bistritzky, who emigrated from Poland in 1971, brought his professional expertise with him. In Warsaw, he had already directed the world-famous Frederyk Chopin Institute and the Chopin Piano Competition. This is also where he met legendary pianist Arthur Rubinstein, whom he brought on board to reside over the competition held in Israel every three years. Rubinstein held the position of Jury chairman in its inaugural year, 1974, and again in 1977.
From the beginning, the jury was chosen to boast international appeal as well as to encompass the highest artistic expectations. Members from the highest ranks of performing artists and educators accepted the invitation, making the competition a red carpet event of the classical music world. Maybe it was the Italian virtuoso Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli who, as member of the 1974 jury, helped decide the vote for Emanuel Ax, as the first prize winner of the very first competition. Perhaps it was the Israeli born Yoheved Kaplinsky, current chair of the piano faculty at Juilliard that helped swing the vote for Kirill Gerstein, at the competition’s tenth round in 2001.
The principle of the competition is straightforward: 13 Jurors have a simple vote, during each stage of the competition, naming the candidates who will go into the next round. In the first stage, all accepted competitors play a 40-50-minute recital with an audience.
The jury decides which 16 competitors will go to the next round. In round one and two, the performer can choose the repertoire, as long as it includes a classical work and a romantic work, as well as a given selection of Israeli works. At the second stage, the jury chooses the 6 finalists, which will be ranked at the third stage. The repertoire includes one chamber music quintet of a given list, as well as two piano concerti, again one a classical period work and the other a romantic or Twentieth century- specified work. The six winners will receive 1. Prize of $25,000, 2. Prize of $15,000, 3. Prize of $10,000 and 4.-6.th Prizes of $3000 each. The Competition Gold, Silver and Bronze Medals, given for first, second and third place, are designed by Pablo Picasso and bear the competition’s inspiration, Arthur Rubinstein’s portrait. They are also engraved with Picasso´s facsimile signature as well as the emblem of the State of Israel, minted by the Israeli Government.
Luminaries of the piano world, like Martha Argerich and Leon Fleisher, have appeared on the list of honorable jurors, as have Lev Naumov and Karl Heinz Kämmerling, to name just a few. Prominent Israeli pianist, composer and educator Prof. Arie Vardi has been part of the jury many times from 1977 onwards and currently serves as the society’s music advisor and chairman of the jury. It was Arie Vardie, who sought after Idith Zvi’s many talents for the society. As a pianist, educated in Israel and the United States, Zvi had reinvented herself often, shifting careers from performing artist, Broadcast producer and Festival founder, to coming full circle as the society’s artistic director. Her life has always centered around music, and her energetic impact has changed Israel’s cultural landscape in the process.
As a talented piano student, Zvi finished the conservatory at age 11. Before entering into the obligatory Israeli Army service, she had studied first with Naima Rosh, a pupil of Ilona Vincze and then was transferred to Ilona Vincze herself. Working at the army radio station, Zvi excitedly found a whole new outlet, allowing her to creatively engage with music, without having to sit and practice the piano in solitude.
But she did receive her Artist Diploma at the Tel Aviv Academy of Music and, when accompanying a student-cellist at a Masterclass given by Leonard Rose, together with violinist Isaac Stern and pianist Eugene Istomin, Rose convinced her to continue her music studies in the United States.. She auditioned for Jerome Lowenthal, longstanding member at the Juilliard faculty and a performer, who at the time was performing with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv. He accepted her as a private student, in New York. Enrolled as a communication major at the Philadelphia based Temple University, she commuted to her piano lessons in New York every week.
That summer of 1968, she attended the Marlboro Festival. A summer she will always remember as a highpoint within her forming years as a musician. Zvi shares her fond memories of the livelong friendships she forged, especially with Richard Goode, who recommended her to move to New York full-time. She followed his advice and continued her postgraduate studies at the Mannes College with Claude Frank. “Shy and insecure, I arrived in New York not knowing what to expect and found myself at the centre of the New York classical music scene,” Zvi remembers.
Pianists Samuel Sanders and Murray Perahia, and violinist Alexander Schneider were amongst her circle of friends. She toured with violinist Yuval Waldman. And then, her father passed away in Israel and she returned home. An only child, she felt her place was here, close to her mother, and she started to make a living as a piano teacher. As a replacement for a radio producer, she launched her second career, radio producer for IBA, the Broadcasting Authority of Israel, working at the classical music station on National Radio.
Connecting her passion for classical music with her talents as a broadcast producer, writer, and editor, Edith Zvi initiated live broadcasts of concert performances. The annual Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s celebrations became public radio celebrations, and Zvi’s broadcast of the Rubinstein competition of 1977 added the necessary publicity to the coveted event of the classical piano world, putting Israel efficiently on the map of international competitions.
The enormous success of an Independence Day Broadcast, with hundreds of children performing music in the lobby of the Tel Aviv Art Museum, inspired Zvi to create her own Chamber Music Festival, the first one in Israel at the time. Even though the lively and entrepreneurial powerhouse postponed the project for many years, she founded the Upper Galilei chamber music days in Kibbiuz K’far Blum in 1985, and stayed on as its artistic director for 10 years.
Live projects of the festival’s radio production became a large cooperation “Kol ha musica ha camerit” between the Office of Education and the Upper Galilei regional council and public radio. Zvi describes it as a huge responsibility: “I was running a one woman show. I was producer, director, and performer and even though it was a very satisfying work, it was time to move on.”
From 1995-2000, she served as Director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra which had established its home at the Tel Aviv Museum. The group of 35 musicians had just parted with its musical director, Shlomo Mintz, and was in a dire financial state. Ultimately Zvi had to recognize that she was not really “dealing with music but with budgets.” That same year, in 2000, she made her move back to radio, and joined the Rubinstein Society as their deputy director. And, then without really changing its job description, the position turned into artistic director in 2003.
Making the competition vivacious and successful is a lot of work. We start after a competition comes to an end; we draw our conclusions of what worked and what didn’t and start preparing the next one. Planning dates requires a lot of coordination with the orchestra. In this case, it’s mainly the Israeli Philharmonic and the Hall. We are producing live performances with ticket sales, which provides an artistic relevant frame for the performer. Even though it is a competition, which is always challenging in so many ways, there is also the true concert experience, with a real audience present. The jurors have to be invited and chosen. We do like to have a good mix of returning jurors as well as new ones,” describes Zvi.
On the forever difficult question of how is it possible to determine a “winner” when inherently “immeasurable” artistic qualities are to be measured regardless, Zvi counters: “The jurors do not debate with each other. They simply name their choices. The mix of jurors helps for a more objective outcome and to create fair conditions. Jurors are not allowed to enter their own current students into the competition. Of course every juror has a personal taste, when it comes to preferences of musical interpretation, but there is also something generally true about a certain level of quality in the competitors.”
She continues, “I personally do not have a vote. I just know out of my own experience, it can be a really challenging experience and the standard is constantly rising. With recording techniques being so extremely advanced, the performer has to raise the level of the live performance as well. And most of them are used to doing just that. Many competitors travel from one competition to the next. I personally would not be competitive enough, accepting failure, without falling apart. I admire their enormous drive and I know how hard it is. Sometimes I just want to hug them, when they are suffering self doubt and despair. But the least I can do is make them feel comfortable. We have lovely host families that accompany them from the moment they arrive in Israel and are at their service. They are accommodated throughout the three weeks of ongoing competition, in a hotel with pianos in each room and their flights are subsidized with 500 dollars.”
At the end it’s about the exposure, the concert experience possibility, the PR and of course the prize itself. The branding as the next “winner” may not make for a sure career breakthrough quite yet, but it certainly is a great entrée.
While the program of the competition is the same every year, and varies only in the Israeli composer section, the opening concert, performed by the winners of the previous competition varies each time and underlies the artistic director’s choices. For this year’s competition opening concert to be performed with the Israel Camerata, Jerusalem, on May 10th, 2011, Edith Zvi has selected my favorite, the Schumann Piano Concerto in A-minor, as well as the Mozart piano concerto 488 in A–major and the Shostakovich concerto for piano, trumpet and strings. The concert will be performed by the winners of the 2008, Roman Rabinovitch (Israel) and Chin Yun Hu (Taiwan), who both shared the second prize, and Khatia Buniatishvili (Georgia).
This year, pianist Yefim Bronfman confirmed that he would join his former teacher Arie Vardi as juror. And Alfred Brendel will be attending as a special guest of honor.
I attended last year’s competition and can recommend it for an exciting challenge even for a member of the audience. You just may hear the next Rubinstein perform.
For more detailed information, go to http://www.arims.org.il.