jie chen 88 .
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The country's most devoted piano lovers joined the Israel Camerata and a small but elite group of foreign performers in Eilat over the weekend for the fourth Piano Festival, a modestly named but impressive gathering of some of the finest classical musicians to visit Israel during the year. An offshoot of the Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, the festival is co-hosted by the Isrotel hotel chain and the music society named in honor of Rubinstein, the celebrated pianist who organizers described as "born in Poland, French in his manners, Jewish in his feelings and an Israel admirer in his acts."
The piano festival, which takes place in years between the tri-annual Rubinstein piano competition, marked what would have been the pianist's 120th birthday - he died in 1982 at age 95 - and served as a prelude to the 12th Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition, which will take place over in Tel Aviv next March.
More than two decades after his death, Rubinstein continues to draw top performers to Israel, with a decidedly youthful set of rising international stars taking their encores before a highly appreciative audience in Eilat. Israelis affiliated with the festival include some of the country's best known classical performers - among them Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance president Ilan Schul and leading Israeli pianist and conductor Arie Vardi - but the festival's foreign guests were of a markedly younger vintage, with Korean pianist Minsoo Sohn, who turns 30 this year, easily the most senior among them. The winner of the Jury's Special Prize and the Audience Favorite Award at the most recent Rubinstein competition, Sohn took the stage on two of the festival's three days to perform works by Liszt, Mozart, Schumann and Beethoven.
Sohn's visiting counterparts included Chinese-born musician Jie Chen, a New York-based performer who won fifth prize at the most recent Rubinstein competition. Chen, who opened the festival with Bach, Brahms and Strauss's "Beautiful Blue Danube," is staying in Israel through next week for performances with the Rishon Lezion Symphony Orchestra at the Tel Aviv and Rishon Lezion Performing Arts Centers. She was joined at the Eilat piano festival by Russian-born Tatiana Kolesova, a 22-year-old who took fifth place at the 2005 Arthur Rubinstein Competition.
Perhaps the most enthusiastic audience response was saved, however, for Wei Xin Zhou, one of three barely teenage pianists who took the stage for "Only 13-Years-Old," a program featuring the top three performers at the recent Schimmel USasu International Piano Competition in the United States. After brief solo performances by the three 13-year-olds, Zhou performed a Stravinsky duet ("for four hands") with Liyan He, a fellow Schimmel award winner and student at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music's Middle School. The pair were then joined by the Schimmel competition's top-ranked performer, Korean pianist Min Soo Hong, for an impressive Rachmaninov Romance for six hands.
The talented threesome was invited to the festival by Idith Zvi, the director of the Rubinstein International Music Society since 2003 and the master of ceremonies for the Eilat festival. Zvi also oversaw a musical homage to comedian and pianist Victor Borge and helped to organize programs paying tribute to opera and the music of South America.
The Rubinstein Piano Festival was the fourth of five cultural festivals Isrotel is using to promote its eight Eilat hotels in 2007. The hotel chain hosted the Red Sea Classic and Cameri Theater at Isrotel festivals earlier this year and will co-sponsor a performance by the Bat-Sheva dance troupe in the region's Timna Park in October. The festivals represent a $1 million annual investment by the hotel company in the cultural life of Israel's southernmost city.