One little country, so much to say
By Rumwold Leigh
Tuesday, April 13
Vakhtang Machavariani at the Rustaveli Theatre, 11 April 2010
The rococo opulence of the Rustaveli was the setting for a concert by the Evgeny Mikeladze Georgian National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Vakhtang Machavariani, part of the fifth annual From Easter to Ascension Festival. This was dedicated to the memory of conductor Zakaria Kuradze (1925-2005) and showcased the work of two prominent Georgian composers, Meri Davitashvili and Alexi Machavariani. It was sponsored by the Georgian Patriarch's Fund, the Akaki Ramishvili Fund, Tbilisi City Hall and several companies of note, including communications provider Telasi.
Being held the day after the tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski the evening began with an addition to the programme, the orchestral version of the pre-communion hymn "I am the True Vine" familiar in Georgian Orthodox Churches. This rendering would not look out of place as the opening of any concert in Georgia, as a reminder of what we are all here for, and was a fitting tribute from Georgia to the late President. It also served as a clever counterpoint to the music of Davitashvili, distinguished by the assured playfulness of someone who has just discovered they are middle aged. In a reversal of the advertised order the first piece played was the suite from the ballet "The Wedding of the Sun". The title should give away the lightness of the piece, and although it may have been classical dance music it was more a communal hug amongst instruments, which you could dance to, or not, as you saw fit. It was followed by what was billed as the first piece, two Georgian dances, Kartuli and Parikaoba (Fencing). These stressed simple melodies and a big orchestra trying to be a Mozart-sized one. One of the virtues of Vakhtang Machavariani as a conductor as that he is very good at bringing out the mood which underlies a piece: whatever the notes may say, the maestro knows what the composer meant, and how to actually express it clearly in a way which transcends the notes.
The third piece in the first half was Davitashvili's Fantasy for Piano and Orchestra, the pianist being the very intense Tamar Licheli. This was a combination of restrained playing and almost embarrassing backing from an orchestra which already knows what the pianist is discovering nervously. It was difficult to see what it was a fantasy upon, but maybe that was the point: the piano was dreaming of something the orchestra teased the pianist about, as it knew that the piano's slow grope for truth would lead to another falsehood, only a better understood one.
After the interval came Alexi Machavariani's Festive Overture. Those who seek undemanding tunes which confirm their existing prejudices won't find that with this composer. He is however a class act who would impress in any company. Indeed, the prospective listener might want to practice on Beethoven first. All the usual Machavariani senior traits were there: the impeccable craftsmanship, the intellectual robustness that makes you sit up and take notice from the first bar, the melodies and harmonies that challenge every listener to go to places they never knew existed and above all the love affair with each instrument, as this composer knows them all intimately and gives each a fully satisfying and almost mortally necessary part. All this came across as well in this short piece as in the more expansive works Alexi Machavariani is better known for, though its accent was again on fun, but fun with great purpose, like treading grapes.
With everyone now a few inches taller Alexander Mindiashvili, a young Russian of Georgian origin, appeared to perform Machavariani's violin concerto, following in the footsteps of David Oistrakh among others. It was the first time Mindiashvili had performed in Georgia, and he could not have chosen a finer piece to tell the world he is Georgian with. It begins and ends with certainty but a certainty which imposes further questions. I may know what I am, but does that mean I am worth anything? This debate takes place not on a high mountain but in a busy street, whilst going about daily life. The outcome is not self-assertion but an expression of what common humanity has come to in the world it has made. Fittingly the piece gets more technically difficult as it goes along, with a prolonged pizzicato passage in the third movement declaiming that the more a man knows, the more he struggles with it. Not surprisingly this piece was written in 1953, when the world Georgia knew was that of Stalin. To the credit of soloist, orchestra and conductor, it was obvious that this struggle is eternal, and is as relevant today as it was then.
One more piece finished the concert – this entitled the Georgian Festive Overture, kept to the end because it postdated the other two Machavariani pieces, being written in the seventies. After the urgent questioning of the concerto, here we had urgency equalling celebration – not an urgent way of expressing something, but the urgency itself. Here we are in the territory of Machavariani's Ushba Symphony, abstract forms going beyond any point of reference to express what exists regardless of us. This in a simple overture, which still worked as one. If that's the overture, presumably the festival it announces is the Second Coming.
When the music was over several local dignitaries were presented with awards. There isn't an award simply for being Georgian, but if there were, it would certainly be a musical one.