Ivory keys to victory

Love of music, young hopes and ambitions, a merciless race and a sporting spirit, moments of bliss and minor tragedies – it all adds up to the moving musical event about to open in Tel Aviv: the 13th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition.

The competition is a thrilling experience, not only for the 37 aspiring musicians who come to Tel Aviv hoping to win the grand prize – which will probably open the door to a major career – but also for musiclovers, who will fill the Recanati Hall of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art to maximum capacity.

The listeners follow the contestants closely. Who is the true artist and who just a glittering but superficial performer? Who will move on to the next round, and who return home emptyhanded? Was the jurors’ decision justified? Who will become the audience’s darling?

And, above all, who will emerge as certain leader of the Big Race, and will he (or she) be strong enough to keep it up to the final round?

The contest program will feature solo recitals, chamber music, and concertos for piano and orchestra. The Ariel Quartet, the Israeli Camerata under Avner Biron and the Israel Philharmonic under Asher Fisch will participate. The final round will take place at Tel Aviv’s Mann Auditorium.

The international jury includes the names of many prominent pianists and piano teachers such as Arie Vardi, Yefim Bronfman, Dmitri Bashkirov, Ian Fountain and Hiroko Nakamura.

“Since the early 1990s, I have returned to this competition again and again, and for a good reason,” says Bashkirov in a phone interview from Madrid.

Born in Tbilisi, Georgia, in 1931, Bashkirov studied with legendary pedagogues Anastasia Virsaladze and later Alexander Goldenweiser in Moscow. After winning the 1956 Grand Prix at the Marguerite Long Competition in Paris, he embarked on a globetrotting career, performing with the world’s best orchestras under leading conductors.

Bashkirov shares his time between Moscow, which serves as his home base, and Madrid, where he has held a professorship at the Escuela Superior de Musica Reina Sofia for 20 years now, as well as presenting master classes worldwide.

“This is an important competition, which bears the name of my probably favorite pianist, one the most natural musicians I’ve ever encountered. I met him and heard him performing several times; at the age of 80, he was emanating energy and played like a young man,” says Bashkirov of Rubinstein.

“I’m also proud to tell that I was very close to with the competition founder, the late Jascha Bistritzky, to whom in many ways it owes its high standards and fine international reputation. This is also the place where I meet with my distinguished colleagues, like the judging committee head professor Arie Vardi and others.

“Last but not least – at this competition, one has a good opportunity to encounter talented young musicians.”

Surprisingly enough, Bashkirov, who serves as a judge at leading piano competitions, is rather skeptical about this institution in general, and with an ironic smile defines music contests as a “sad necessity.”

“There are far too many of them,” he explains, “and there simply is not enough place in the world’s concert halls to offer the stage for the first-prize winners, not to say of the other laureates. Also, for some young musicians, the victory in a major competition becomes the peak, and not the starting point, of their career.

“The reason is simple: They (and often their tutors) are victory-oriented. As a result, young musicians find themselves unable to develop their careers on their own, without their teachers, who have led them to this point but have not taught them to think on their own.”

I point out that he himself prepared Kirill Gerstein within a year for his victory at the Rubinstein competition back in 2001…

“No, I did not,” objects Bashkirov firmly.

“This is not a sporting event, and I’m not a coach. I prepared Kirill to perform at the competition decently, and to showcase both his ability to understand a piece and to present it.

“I’m grateful to the competition for the Grand Prix, which my not-so-mature pupil – 20 years old at the time – was awarded.

“And he has fulfilled his promise. Nowadays, his career is on the rise. Combining an analytical approach with spontaneity, he performs worldwide with orchestras, in chamber programs and recitals; and he received a professorship at Stuttgart Hochschule at the age of 27 – this does not happen every day.”

As a judge, what are Bashkirov’s criteria? “A combination of natural talent – that is, of musicality and artistry, of intellect, as well as an ability to perform. But by no means is the technical, the pianistic aspect on top of the list for me. Nowadays, there are thousands of young boys and girls who have learned to play piano pretty well, so that I sometimes envy them; but as for their musicality – I can envy only a very few of them.”

Speaking wittily, fast-reacting, fresh-thinking and logical, Bashkirov doesn’t seem to be approaching 80. But he admits that if until age 70 he shared his time equally between performing and teaching, today he almost totally dedicates himself to the latter.

“I find myself unable to do both equally well, and I also think that replicating myself in numerous concerts is quite an egotistic approach to the music.

“I believe that the best thing I can now do is to help young musicians. And my ego does not suffer at all – with 54 years of experience behind me, I love teaching at least as much as performing, or maybe even more,” he smiles again.

Bashkirov goes on to explain that an individual approach to each and every student is essential.

“I believe that there are several absolute axioms in teaching: a sense of style, a fine artistic taste, and respect for the composer’s ideas – you should not destroy the natural flow of the music – yet the rest is quite individual.

I adamantly believe – and this is what I tell my students – that in every piece the notes are still hieroglyphs which we need to analyze and to decipher, depending on the idea of the music.”

Does he have any general advice for young artists? “I do,” he replies swiftly, becoming very serious.

“No practical considerations, such as money, fame, popularity, concert contracts, positions or titles should ever dominate your love of music. For a true artist, the abovementioned ‘bonuses’ will probably come as accessories to the real thing. I think that we teachers have to serve this idea and show the young the way.”

The competition takes place May 10-26, opening with the 2008 competition winners gala concert, accompanied by the Israel Camerata under Avner Biron at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art.

Tickets: (03) 604-5000 or *8965, or go to: http://www.TKTS.co.il More information about the Arthur Rubinstein Competition: http://www.arims.org.il

Published in the Jerusalem Post May 5 2011

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