EAST MEETS WEST AT EURASIA FESTIVAL
Aiming to enlighten, the Eurasia Festival presents an eclectic mix of classical music to an appreciative audience.
By Galina Stolyarova
The St. Petersburg Times
Published: October 16, 2013 (Issue # 1782)
The mutual influence between the Eastern and Western musical traditions are at the heart of the Eurasia music festival that is currently underway in Yekaterinburg, showcasing traditional Indian music, modern interpretations of flamenco, the ancient art of Azerbaijani mugam and a groundbreaking new work by a St. Petersburg composer.
The world premiere of Leonid Desyatnikov’s “The Journey of the Fox to the Northwest” was performed at the festival’s opening on Oct. 4 at the Sverdlovsk Philharmonic hall. The piece for soprano and orchestra was inspired by 17th century Chinese erotic prose and based on a verse by the St. Petersburg poet Yelena Schwartz, featuring the mythical Chinese werefox as its central character.
“To a western European, Oriental culture often seems hypocritical or conventional, while many people from the East struggle to make out the origins of European art,” Desyatnikov said. “Mutual understanding would bring peace to our minds.”
Tracing and exploring cross-cultural connections is exactly the mission of the Eurasia Festival, a biannual event that is now being held for the second time.
Eurasia is a rare breed of musical festival in Russia: It does not flirt with its audiences by treating them to light, easily digested shows, nor does it try to placate them by trying to involve the biggest names. Rather, the festival is in search of authenticity in every kind of music and piece that is performed.
“In a way, our festival explores the images of the East that are imprinted in the consciousness of Europeans,” said Gyulara Sadykh-zade, the festival’s programming director. A native of Baku and a graduate of the St. Petersburg Conservatory, Sadykh-zade is an established classical music reviewer, who maintains a globetrotting schedule by splitting her time between St. Petersburg, Berlin, Salzburg, Lucerne and Bayreuth. Eurasia is the St. Petersburg critic’s debut as a festival organizer.
“I was honoured to receive the offer from Dmitry Liss, the artistic director of the Ural Philharmonic orchestra; it is a true privilege to be part of a team that is on a mission to push the boundaries, ruin stereotypes and celebrate the art,” Sadykh-zade told The St. Petersburg Times. “The festival strives to present the real East in an effort to contrast it with the somewhat idealistic, romanticized and poetic associations with Oriental culture.”
Geographically, Yekaterinburg appears to be the perfect place to host an event titled Eurasia as the city thrives in its location on the border between East and West. The city even has a monument in the form of a piece of the virtual border that enables visitors to set one foot in Asia while keeping one foot planted in Europe. And, as the level of the performances proves, artistically, Yekaterinburg has established itself as a cultural capital.
The festival’s ultimate goal is to bring the Orient closer to the Russian audiences through exposure to authentic art. The grateful cordiality with which the shows are being received indicates that Eurasia is succeeding in its endeavors.
The performance by the Azerbaijani Mugam Ensemble on Saturday brought tears to the eyes of quite a few members of the audience despite their not knowing a single word of the language and the whole experience being for many of them, their first exposure to the art of mugam — an ancient form of traditional music from Azerbaijan.
Singer Arzu Alieva’s vocal range was stunning, but the most amazing thing was not the unique sound that she cultivated but a kind of primordial energy that she was able to deliver with her performance that provided an existential experience.
“Quite honestly, we did not expect a lot in terms of the audience reception: We felt we would be grateful for tolerance, and touched by any interest, but what the audiences gave the musicians was fascination, admiration, enthusiasm,” said Sultan Gasymov, the consul general of Azerbaijan in Yekaterinburg, speaking after the concert on Saturday. “Indeed, there will be more of our music here — and very soon — because the audiences are voracious for it!”
The performance by the Mugam Ensemble opened a two-day miniature concert marathon, titled The Silk Road ,that brought the Azeri musicians together with the Byzantion choir from Romania, Spanish flamenco singer Rafael de Utrera and his ensemble, and an Indian classical music trio.
Rafael de Utrera represents the modern generation of flamenco singers who render the old art in an ecstatic, dynamic, volcanic kind of way. The galvanizing two-hour show triumphed on Saturday night as a genuine flamenco “tour de force.”
True to its European side, the festival marked 100 years since the birth of Benjamin Britten with the performance of the composer’s “Serenade” and his “Spring Symphony,” which enjoyed its first performance in the city.
It is the goal of Dmitry Liss, the principal conductor and the artistic director of the Ural Philharmonic orchestra to turn every performance into a discovery, be it a Russian premiere of an exciting piece of music, an authentic performance of a work, or a unique instrument.
Joining the Ural Philharmonic orchestra in the “Homage to Britten” were soprano Katherine Broderick, tenor Mark Wilde and mezzo-soprano Madeleine Shaw.
“We were mesmerized by the sound of their singing,” said Olga Viktorova, a Yekaterinburg composer. “While Russian theaters have developed a taste for Britten’s operas, the composer’s choral and chamber works remain a missing link in the repertoires of Russian concert organizations. As a composer living today, I was astonished to feel Britten’s very particular sense of the sea and his homeland through this fabulous performance. My personal discovery made at that concert was the emotional bridge between the music of Britten and that of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky, whose fascination with Russia I find very appealing.”
The English singers, speaking after the concert on Friday, described it as a memorable and overwhelming experience.
“Already during the rehearsals we felt like we should bring the Russian choir back with us to England,” said Broderick. “The sound of the English choir is very different, but the Russian singing that we have encountered in Yekaterinburg is magnificent and we feel we should introduce English audiences to this marvelous way of singing Britten.”
To really deserve the title “cultural capital,” a city needs to make the arts accessible to all residents, without compromising standards. The Eurasia Festival gives center stage to the Ural Philharmonic and its brilliant, inspired, searching orchestra that is in and of itself a reason to make the trip to Yekaterinburg. The Ural Philharmonic orchestra has developed an audience that any ensemble would envy — understanding, curious, sensitive and grateful. And, more importantly, the new event is a sign of the city’s vitality, its wealth of ideas, talent and that precious inspired atmosphere where genuine art is born.