Idith Zvi, Retired Artistic Director of the Arthur Rubinstein International Society
Interviewed by Masha Hinich
Idith, last July you retired from your role as Artistic Director of the Rubinstein Competition, after 17 years in the position. How do you feel about your decision to leave? Relief? Remorse? Regret?
Neither relief, nor remorse, nor regret! I feel I did the right thing.
I worked for the Arthur Rubinstein International Society for 20 years. The first three years as deputy to Jan Jacob (Jascha) Bistritzky, the founder of the Society and its Director, until I was appointed his successor in 2003.
Because of the timing, I feel the need to emphasize that there is no connection between my retirement and the Covid-19 pandemic. I didn’t abandon my responsibilities for fear of the virus or the ensuing difficulties. I announced that the 16th Competition will be my last, about a year before its planned date.
The Competition was due to take place just as I turned 75 and completed 20 years working for the Society, I felt it was time to move on. I have always believed that it’s neither healthy nor useful to stick to a managerial role for too long. Ultimately, holding on to a job will harm the manager, the work environment, and the people it influences.
In the 80’s I founded the Upper Galilee Chamber Music Festival, which I ran for ten years.
I felt then that the Festival was my baby, but even so, I kept asking myself each year “Is this the moment to pull out?”. And ten years later, I decided it had been a good inning, and I left. After that, I was appointed director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, and five years later I said to myself, “Enough, it’s time to make room for others”.
I have always believed and trusted the feeling that every role has a beginning and an end, and that one should step down at the appropriate moment.
The Rubinstein Competition that was due to take place in May 2020 was to be my last, that is, the last under my management. 20 years with the Rubinstein Society, 5 years with the Chamber Orchestra, and nearly 40 years as music editor at Kol Israel Radio became symbolic. I saw them as an auspicious sequence of events, and an appropriate occasion for me to inform the Society management of my intention to retire at the end of the competition, to leave management positions, to turn to another, less intense life and return to making music one way or another.
However, fate intervened and disrupted my plans. This meant that I could not complete the 16th Competition, which did not take place on the scheduled dates.
This brings me to the question: What are you going to do now?
Hopefully- many things. I will continue to teach part-time at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Tel Aviv University. I really like the courses I tutor – stage performance and chamber music – and I enjoy the young vibe. I try to engage in physical activity at least four times a week, I’ve enrolled in a creative writing course and happily enjoy the freedom not to rush anywhere.
I had a few more plans but due to the pandemic, I muddle through at home (belonging to the ‘high risk’ group) and am confined in what I can do. Who knows where we will all end up…? Only a few of my “post-retirement plans” have materialized.
From that moment in late April, when it was clear that the Competition would be postponed, and to this day, I live from day to day and have a hard time planning anything.
Nevertheless, you initiated and organized a virtual Piano Festival in a very short time and managed to stream it exactly on the dates when the 16th Arthur Rubinstein Competition was supposed to take place. I must say I was amazed at how you managed to do it.
It’s very simple: when I realized that the competition will not materialize, I sat down and quickly, thought about an alternative activity and I got busy on the phone…
This is not the most detailed explanation. How were you able to convince so many people to collaborate – musicians, former prizewinners, the University that provided the hall?
I managed to convince them by sheer willpower and the conviction that we must keep on initiating and creating, rather than sitting idly by and waiting for the virus to pass. Almost everyone I consulted agreed with me, including our award winners from past competitions.
I also felt obligated to my co-workers: by no means did I want to send them on unpaid leave, as often happened during the first lockdown, which distressed me because I got the impression that people were sent home to get them out of the way, without taking into account the snowball effect it would create. Why all the politics? How can you treat your staff like that? I could not contemplate this for the employees at my side.
No one knew then what would happen, how long it would last, and where we would find the money for salaries. So, as there was no work at that point, I created some.
How did you pull it off?
As I said, I put my thinking cap on, and one night I saw a live performance from the Zappa Club on TV: The performer was alone on stage, singing into an empty hall, with no applause of course.
The next morning, I called our recording expert. I asked if we could turn the entire Competition into a virtual competition on the original dates. When it became clear that this would not be possible for technical and organizational reasons, requiring a lot of money and time to get organized (listening to contestants from different locations, identical grand pianos, similar acoustics, photographers and stage-directors in different countries) I realized that this was beyond our capabilities. But we could organize virtual classical music concerts… The Rubinstein Competition can do just as well as Zappa.
At first, I thought that we might also be able to broadcast from the Zappa Club, but I soon changed my mind and checked upon two halls: the Tel Aviv Conservatory Auditorium and the Clairmont Hall – Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University.
Clairmont was chosen and we decided to join forces and create the Arthur Rubinstein Virtual Piano-Fest, ARVP. Together with the head of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music, Professor Tomer Lev, we selected Israeli pianists – award winners in various Israeli piano competitions, to perform live at the Clairmont Hall. They performed voluntarily.
Prof. Lev and I discussed the program and the technical details and the live performances, and together with my colleagues of the Rubinstein and Buchman-Mehta’s offices, as well as the current competition director who came in my place – Ariel Cohen – we all worked around the clock to launch this virtual festival with live broadcasts, exactly on the initial dates of the 16th Rubinstein Competition.
I enhanced the program with recitals recorded especially for ARVP by pianists from around the world – Boris Giltburg, currently living in the Netherlands, Roman Rabinovich, living in Canada, Yaron Kohlberg in Cleveland, Alexander Korsantia in the US. We streamed recordings of our winners from previous competitions – Daniil Trifonov, Alexander Gavrylyuk; held a live symposium about the place of the Israeli compositions at the Rubinstein Competition, with composers – Yosef Bardanashvili, Moshe Zorman, Oded Zehavi and pianists – Ofra Yitzhaki and Michal Tal; We streamed two episodes from Arie Verdi’s renowned TV show – “Intermezzo with Arik”. And finished with the three winners of the last competition (2017) – Szymon Nehring, Daniel Ciobanu, and Sarah Daneshpour, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.
And you succeeded! Thousands of people watched this virtual festival online,
from 5 – 21 May 2020.
Yes, and to those who missed out or would like to recap, the recordings are available on the Rubinstein Competition YouTube channel (access is free): https://www.youtube.com/user/AthurRubinstein
Although there is no substitute for a live performance, we have no choice but to get used to living in a new reality.
We continue to make plans, despite all that’s going on, despite the instability and uncertainty of what will happen next.
Children continue to be born, and they still study and will carry on learning music. And there will be concerts and there will be culture.
One of your areas of activity is teaching. The concept of the alternative “Junior Jury” is also yours, as is the daughter competition in China – the Arthur Rubinstein International Youth Piano Competition – launched in 2016 in Beijing: the first Arthur Rubinstein Competition for pianists under the age of 18, outside of Israel.
At the end of the day, all competitions are organized to enable young pianists to be exposed to a large audience worldwide. I must add that my opinion towards competitions is not unequivocal. I believe that first you should study music not necessarily striving for a career, but as a way of developing an overall culture, for ourselves. I hope that the generations succeeding my grandchildren will listen to classical music. Meanwhile, the younger generation hardly listens to classical music, hardly goes to concerts, or learns music at school. My daughters went to concerts for youth, more often than my grandchildren do. I’m not talking now about children with exceptional talent and ability, nor about the ones whose parents push their talented children, but about the fact that music should be accessible to everyone, everyone should learn music and learn to listen to music.
Today in Israeli schools there are hardly any music lessons or art lessons. Many years ago, when I was the director of the Israel Chamber Orchestra, I attended a conference of Israeli cultural institutions. Several government representatives and various cultural institutions were represented on stage and the audience consisted of directors of artistic entities. When they were invited to have their say, they all requested grants for their theaters and orchestras. Even though I was the director of an orchestra on a very low budget, I preferred to ask for funding and establishing regular and consequent Art education from kindergarten, to high school.
It is clear to me that with a formal education in the Arts, when children grow up they will have more interest in these areas and will continue. The main thing is that they will experience art and music, and if someone wants to play the violin, he will not be ashamed to do so while his friends are playing football. Art, such as music, drawing, dance, and theater, must all become an integral part of the education system.
Sure, some parents pay private tutors who do a great job, but that’s not my dream. I am aware that there are many musicians in the world, that learning requires time and money and always comes at the expense of something else. Precisely because of this, the right balance must be found, and it has been found in some schools abroad: they have music lessons, orchestras and ensembles, and music is an integral part of the curriculum.
Unfortunately, our decision-makers can’t be bothered with this. They don’t want to, or they don’t think it’s important enough to be dealt with.
Look at what’s going on now, in the midst of the Corona pandemic: there are ever more frequent demonstrations whose purpose is to uphold human dignity and integrity, but the words “culture” and “art” don’t even get a mention. As if art has been forgotten altogether!
Is there a clear solution to these problems?
If there were simple solutions to hand, I would put them forward. I only know that all this should have started ages ago, and as long as the government and educational institutions do not recognize the importance of education in culture and the arts, nothing will happen. In normal times, there’s a lot of room for cultural life, thanks chiefly to private patronage.
Most cultural events are sponsored by philanthropic organizations. Who supports the Rubinstein Competition? Where does the money come from for all the complex logistics of the three-stage competition and lavish gala concerts with such big audiences?
Those account for only some of the costs. In addition to the running expenses, there are other outgoings for the Competition, including inviting judges and providing for their remuneration; hiring chamber ensembles and musicians, engaging orchestras; organizing hotel accommodation for competitors and judges, and significant financial prizes for the winners.
The Competition has always received ongoing annual State support and backing from the Tel Aviv-Yafo Municipality. But without donations from private individuals and companies, the Competition would not have developed and grown.
20 years ago, the first prize was $25,000, now it’s $40,000.
There are families who have supported us for decades. The awards do not just go to the six finalists. There are other worthy prizes and lower monetary bracket. The Competition is continuously sponsored by several patrons of the arts – from Israel, Spain, USA, England, Australia – some going back to the days of the Competition’s founder and its first director – Jascha Bistritzky.
Yes, and it’s an amazing story. My mother, who was a piano teacher, had an elderly piano student and friend. She was Australian by origin. One day my mother mentioned that the Rubinstein Society was desperate for donations and that it was on the brink of economic collapse (and indeed it was). At the end of the piano lesson, the friend-student called me and suggested that I write to a potential donor in Melbourne. I approached the donor – a representative of the Australian Pratt Foundation – and the rest is history: the Pratt Foundation became a regular donor and thanks to them we were able to increase the sum of the first prize.
What advice or recommendations would you like to give to the current Competition management?
I have worked with Ariel Cohen, the incoming artistic director, for many years. Ariel is a pianist, a musician, and was also the Chair of the Rubinstein Society Board. In the overlapping month we worked together I answered all his questions, but I don’t intend to give directions or instructions to anyone. Each one has his own vision. We are going through strange times, in a strange period, that we do not know what, how, and when things will turn out, and it’s hard to plan ahead. And naturally, every manager leaves his/her mark of character and personality.
The Rubinstein Competition was never “my competition”. For me, it was and still is the Competition of its founder – Jascha Bistritzky.
But once the child has grown up, he’s out of your hands. The Competition has grown, become independent, and today, in my opinion, needs to be developed and supported, but not “lectured”. I’d say what’s chiefly important to develop now, is the technological side.
It seems that Coronavirus has driven imaginative and talented people to develop new technological routes that will change the music world. Who would have believed that musicians would use iPads instead of sheet music! Who would have believed that an online festival could be held live, as we did in May 2020? Until then it was not even thought of.
iPads on stage used to be considered a revolution, but now they’re used by most orchestras.
Many activities take place today on the Internet and especially in these turbulent days: masterclasses, fundraising, lectures, presentations, exhibitions, meetings and concerts.
If the Corona-virus does not permit the Competition to take place in the usual format, I’m sure it will take place virtually. We must behave according to the new rules of the new age and new technologies. I guess that in a few months there will be even bigger and better screens, even higher-resolution images, and more sophisticated recording devices. Six months ago, no one had heard of “Zoom”, and look what’s happening now. Technologies are evolving and the Competition needs to take this into account.
Are you not concerned that with all this technological development people will completely stop going out?
I’m not afraid of that. People are curious and social animals; they need to be in touch with each other, and to touch each other. We miss one another … at least, that’s what I think. Audiences will always come to concert halls. Maybe less than before, some orchestras may close down, but others will continue to play. And all artistic bodies will offer paid subscriptions online, as they already do at the Berlin Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
A classic example: when television was invented, it was claimed that no one would listen to the radio or go to the movies anymore, but that did not happen.
Right. No need to fear virtual media, we have to move forward.
But still, let’s compare today’s Competition with the past …
In my opinion, the most significant difference is working with the media. In the past, the Competition generated real hysteria in the media, huge interest. It wasn’t the Society’s employees who ran after the journalists, but the journalists who “hunted down” the contestants. Now everything is different. Until recently, gala concerts were of nationwide interest and all TV channels would broadcast them live. It was not just a Rubinstein Competition for the audience in the concert hall, but a piano celebration, three weeks of live radio broadcasts from the first note to the last.Every day an article or review on Competition events would appear in all the leading newspapers. Now the concert halls are full but the media has lost interest.
Why is that? Is it because there are too many competitions in the world?
That is one of the reasons. When the Rubinstein Competition started up, there were not so many musical events, there were not so many orchestras in Israel, and so the focus of attention was on the Rubinstein Competition. Today, generally speaking, very little is written about arts in the broadest sense, except for certain specialist publications and articles. An editor does a great favor when he publishes a “culture” column.
We’re in the midst of a transformation. We don’t know where we’re going and where all this will lead.
So, students have to look for alternatives: to study music and art, but also something practical.
I don’t want to clip anyone’s wings and I wish every music student success. But I think it’s also important to understand that if there’s disappointment in your profession, it is not the end of the world, life doesn’t end there. Today, more than ever, we must be ready for change, and it’s not that simple. Life has taught me that we must be prepared. The changes we are witnessing now are very dramatic, very striking. Who could have imagined a year ago that this is what the world would look like because of a small virus from China?
Therefore, even at the age of 75 one has to be flexible enough, prepared for change, and the main thing – to enjoy life as it comes.
One must keep the wind in the sails.
Masha Hinich (initially published in Russian 13/10/2020).
Photograph, courtesy of Idith Zvi
Arthur Rubinstein International Society