Israel's fervor for music at high pitch

The audience booed and shouted angry catcalls. Protests became so menacing that the lady in the chair cut short her festive speech and, accompanied by the rest of her embarrassed committee, left the stage, retorting: "You make our task even harder."

This did not happen at a political meeting where vehemence is the accepted standard of behavior in many countries. The outburst occurred at a musical event: at the huge Mann Auditorium here after an international jury announced the three top winners of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition April 17.

The unrest began at an early stage of the competition after it became known that a brilliant English pianist, Christian Blackshaw, was eliminated from the semifinals. A large section of the audience -- mostly professional musicians and music lovers -- considered this unfair and rebelled.

Spontaneous sympathy demonstrations in the concert hall followed. Groups were formed to petition the jury to revise its decision. A campaign was organized by people who never spoke a word to the young man to invite him for a concert tour of Israel, regardless of the outcome of the competition. Even the police became aware of potential trouble and took hurried precautions -- just in case.

For the world of classical music it was an unusual happening.

But it gave an insight into Israel's great est strength -- and weakness. It showed the intense, if not total involvement of the Israeli, wherever his interest may lie.

To music lovers here, Prime Minister Menachem Begin's crucial talks with President Carter about Israel's future are of merely marginal relevance. So are soaring inflation and drama in south Lebanon. What really matters is music. This is something for which the dedicated music lover is ready to mount the barricades.

Thus, the piano competition touched upon his passion and sense of fair play. This time -- this is the third Rubinstein competition since it was started in 1974 -- it brought to Israel 36 so highly gifted contestants from the four corners of the earth that, with only a few exceptions, the choice was not between good and bad, nor even between good and better, but between excellent and extraordinary.

The jury thus faced a difficult task indeed. For two weeks, 10 to 12 hours each day, they listened to the talented and well-prepared contestants. Finally, they awarded the first prize to Allen Gregory, a rising star of the Peabody Conservatory of Baltimore, Maryland. The second went to Ian Hobson, who received his education at the Royal Academy of Music, London, and at Cambridge University. Third winner was Jeoffrey Tozer, from Melbourne, Australia, pupil of private teachers.

But a major part of the audience, which sat through the two weeks of auditions, felt disappointed. They thought Mr. Hobson should have become first winner instead of Mr. Gregory. At the final phase both played superbly Rachmaninoff's Third Concerto in D Minor.

While Mr. Gregory excelled in technique and fidelity to the composer's text, Mr. Hobson's strenght came from the unusual sonority of is tone and individually artistic interpretation.

Some of Israel's leading music critics, such as Hana Yador of the popular daily Maariv and Hanan Ron of the national radio services, shared the public's feelings. One wrote: "Impersonal sterility won over sensitive personality."

One said: "Had [Artur] Rubinstein himself participated in the contests, he would have been eliminated at an early stage with this jury's exaggerated emphasis on precision instead on the beauty of music."

The first prize at the Rubinstein competition is not only a moral victory. In addition to the immediate financial reward -- $5,000 -- it opens the door to worldwide concert engagements and to some top-ranking recording companies.

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