Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, played host to the third in a series of annual music festivals earlier this month honoring one of the city’s most distinguished native sons, cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich.
Rostropovich was born to a musical family in Baku on March 27, 1927, his father, Leopold, a renowned cellist and professor at the Baku Conservatory, his mother, Sofia, a talented pianist.
“My father lived in Baku only until he was four, but he always loved the city,” daughter Olga Rostropovich, director of the festival and president of the Mstislav Rostropovich Foundation, said during a conversation just prior to the festival’s closing concert. “He came to Baku to conduct,” she continued, “and was forever trying to improve the musical situation, making it his business to see that the orchestra here was provided with better instruments and received better salaries. He also wished to create a festival the likes of which Baku had never seen before.”
Rostropovich fulfilled his wish a little more than a year before his death in April 2007 by bringing an impressive array of fellow musicians to Baku for a week of concerts commemorating the 100th anniversary of the birth of his close friend and mentor, Dmitry Shostakovich.
Present-day Baku, is a handsome, bustling, oil-rich metropolis of just above 2 million inhabitants, boasting an array of luxury boutiques that easily rival Moscow’s and clubs that are alleged to rank the city among the world’s 10 leading centers of nightlife.
When it comes to classical music, however, Baku lies off the beaten track of touring soloists and ensembles. It took considerable effort, therefore, plus strong support from the Azeri government and the foundation bearing the name of the country’s first president, Heydar Aliyev, to bring to the city an assembly of musical talent from around the globe as extraordinary as that which appeared at this year’s Rostropovich festival. For the most part, the performances that resulted were of a quality to make even a jaded Moscow concert-goer sit up and take notice.
The festival’s opening concert, however, relied for its music not on imported talent but on Baku’s own Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra, which played quite superbly under the baton of its long-time music director, Rauf Abdullayev. Featured on the brief program was a fascinating array of works by half a dozen Azeri composers, all of which seemed in some degree to spring from Azerbaijan’s rich store of folk music.
Following intermission on opening night came a very special tribute to Rostropovich, with the showing of an hour-long film from U.S. television network CBS documenting his return to the Soviet Union in 1990, together with his equally famous soprano wife, Galina Vishnevskaya, following the couple’s 16-year-long enforced exile abroad. Besides marking each step of the joyous weeklong homecoming, the film also captured the extraordinary spirit of the time, when everything seemed possible, including, most of all, that the Soviet Union might transform itself into a very different sort of country.
The soloist on the festival’s second evening was Lithuanian-born cellist David Geringas, a prize pupil of Rostropovich and winner of a gold medal at the 1970 Tchaikovsky Competition, who managed to bring clarity to the knotty solo passages of Shostakovich’s Cello Concert No. 1, of a sort perhaps heard only in the remembered performances of his great mentor.
On the evening that followed, young Azeri native Murad Adigezalzadeh provided truly virtuoso pianism in Sergei Prokofiev’s Piano Concert No. 2, and was splendidly accompanied by Moscow’s Novaya Rossia Orchestra, under the baton of Romanian conductor Christian Badea, who went on to lead the first-ever performance of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 10 that, in my experience, actually generated excitement.
On stage for the next two festival evenings was London’s superb English Chamber Orchestra, first with famed Israeli-born violinist Pinchas Zukerman as conductor and soloist in some stylishly played music of Joseph Haydn and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and then (in a concert that brief illness forced me to miss) under the baton of its principal conductor, Paul Watkins.
The festival’s final concert proved unexpectedly exciting. Leading the Azerbaijan State Symphony in the music of Ludwig van Beethoven was Maxim Vengerov, known far and wide as a supreme virtuoso of the violin but in recent seasons turning to the podium as the result of a shoulder problem. It is good to know that the problem has now been overcome and Vengerov will soon be playing again. But considering how incisively he dispatched Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, Triple Concerto — with three excellent young soloists, including Taiwanese-Australian violinist Ray Chen, who last summer took first prize in the hugely prestigious Queen Elizabeth of Belgium Competition — and Symphony No. 5, Vengerov seems likely before long to be pursuing as acclaimed a conducting career as the one that he has already forged at the violin.