'I have found that if you love life, life will love you back," said Arthur Rubinstein, probably the greatest piano virtuosi of the 20th Century. Given this philosophy, one can only assume that while Rubinstein would probably have been astounded by the surroundings of Stage III of the 12th piano competition named in his honor, he would have approved. As in previous Arthur Rubinstein Piano Master Competitions, a tri-annual event which has been nicknamed the "Piano Olympics," the Chamber Music semi-finals were hosted in grand style at Isrotel Royal Beach in Eilat. The event is somewhat of a musical interlude, much lighter in tone than the major part of the competition which is held in Tel Aviv's Mann Auditorium. Since this year the dates coincided with Purim, the atmosphere took on a carnival-like atmosphere. Although there was no doubt that the audience filling the Royal Beach's congress hall took their music seriously, it was clear that they could still have fun. Artistic director Idith Zvi and the jury, chaired by Arie Vardi, participated in the festivities, which included a Purim quiz, excerpts from Megillat Esther (Book of Esther) and a program entitled "Potpurim," for which both the performers and many people in the audience dressed up. While the audience had the chance to relax and enjoy the facilities of both Royal Beach and Royal Gardens - whose attractions include waterfalls, an ecological pond and a swimming pool designed as an artificial beach - the contestants did not take much time off. The performance level this year is considered exceptionally high, leading jurist Tamas Vasary to quip that he doubted he would have made it into the competition in any other capacity. "The standard is 10 times higher than in my youth. It's a joke that I've been asked to perform tonight," he announced. But in Purim-style, the joke was on us. Vasary, accompanied by his talented dancer wife, demonstrated why he has been showered with international awards. When the Hungarian pianist performed works from his native country, it was particularly clear why he has received Hungary's highest cultural prize and a gold medal from the president. "Music from your homeland remains in your blood," professed Vietnamese-Canadian pianist and jury member Thai Son Dang in a panel discussion. During the discussion, nearly all the jurists noted the intense pressure that is involved in such competitions and several admitted that it is the reason they no longer competed themselves. It is a lesson that even 12-year-old Noam Itzhaki, sitting in the audience, has learned. Itzhaki, who started playing piano at the age of five, influenced by his well-known composer-conductor relative Gil Shohat, has competed in several prestigious events, taking third prize in a Mozart competition. "When you're pressured, you play less well," he said with the voice of experience, despite his youth. Itzhaki, from Hod Hasharon, came to the Eilat events to help improve his own technique. His dream is to one day perform in Carnegie Hall and, of course, to take part in the Arthur Rubinstein Competition: "I'm still young but I'm getting there," he said. Itzhaki was definitely among the younger members of the audience - if you exclude my six-year-old son, Yossi, and the four-year-old grandson of Idith Zvi, Liam Triger, both of whom enjoyed performances before dozing off. There seemed to be no set profile to those who attended the contest, except, of course, a love of music, and Rubinstein-style, a love of life. "I'm a music freak," Livnat Rieder, a 57-year-old lawyer from Tel Aviv told me before a performance. "I go to as much as I can, but there are so many events that to get to them all, you would simply have to stop working." THERE ARE several annual music and cultural festivals hosted by the Isrotel chain in Eilat alone, and when the Arthur Rubinstein Competition is not taking place, the Arthur Rubinstein Society holds smaller piano festivities at the Red Sea resort. Retired teacher Elda Raviv, who also traveled to Eilat from Tel Aviv especially for the Rubinstein event, said: "I don't like chamber music particularly, but this event is special." The audience expectations and demands of the contest definitely take a toll on contestants, who barely emerged between performing and practicing. How do they deal with it? "I don't handle the pressure very well," said Australian competitor David Fung a few minutes after coming off stage after an excellent performance. "I don't have any particular technique - unless you count a couple of vodkas!" The affable Fung won the vote of my son, although the Isrotel audience favorite vote went to the exquisite Georgian, Khatia Buniatishvili. And many critics have singled out Taiwanese Ching Yun Hu. It was, however, blind American pianist Carlos Ibay who won a special place in the hearts of most. Although Ibay did not make it through to the semi-finals, he won an invitation to Eilat by sheer force of his personality - and proved himself multi-talented. A polyglot who absorbed the Purim spirit instantly, he not only played a mean piano, but sang wonderful opera and had the audience laughing with jokes that struck just the right note. Altogether, the Potpurim spiel kept the audience amused with such pieces as Glenn Gould's "So you want to write a fugue," Rossini's "Duetto buffo di due gatti," with singers Shira Shafir and Yair Polishuk as the two cats in question, and video excerpts from "A little nightmare music," by Igudesman & Joo. The musical comedy team was, for this music-loving laywoman, the biggest discovery in Eilat. From the several excerpts I saw, violinist Aleksei Igudesman and pianist Richard Hyung-Ki Joo are the unlikely but worthy successors of Victor Borge: talented musicians who know how to have fun and make others laugh. But, despite the time-out in the resort town, the aim of the competition is serious: to crown a new winner of the title worthy of Rubinstein's name. The Eilat event included a reunion with the prize-winners of the 11th competition, Yeol Eum Son and Igor Levit. The semi finals of the orchestral stage of the 12th competition continue tonight in Tel Aviv and the finals and award ceremony take place on Thursday, March 27. The six finalists are Buniatishvili, Fung, Hu, Estonian Irina Zahharenkova, and Israelis Roman Rabinovich and Inesa Sinkevych. The finals will be broadcast live by the French TV channel Mezzo to 37 countries and on Israel Television's Channel 1 and as well as Army Radio and Kol Hamusica. The international and local coverage would no doubt have pleased Rubinstein who once said: "The new Jewish nation has felt, from its earliest beginnings, that homeland and culture are two concepts which cannot be separated from each other." Participants, of course, all stress that the most important thing is to play well and compete honorably, but the huge emotional resources required for this type of world-class competition obviously mean that winning is the ultimate goal. How does one achieve that aim? "You have to make a good impression in the first 10 minutes and build on that," suggested one of this year's jurors. Rubinstein himself is recorded as having offered different advice. The master pianist, who died at the age of 95 in 1982, was quoted as saying: "Of course there is no formula for success except perhaps an unconditional acceptance of life and what it brings."