Music

Berlin Philharmonic Brings the Annual Europakonzert to Georgia

There are times when a performance gains power not only from who’s playing what music and how, but also from when and where it’s played. So it was with the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2024 Europakonzert, which took place on May 1 at the historic Tsinandali Estate in Georgia.

As Georgians protested in the streets of the capital city of Tbilisi against a law that would regulate NGOs and foreign media companies in a way that many people there believe would benefit Russia – or at least follow its illiberal path — one of the most accomplished orchestras in Europe delivered a majestic performance of pieces by Schubert, Brahms and Beethoven, as if to culturally anchor the country in the heart of Europe.

The concert at the Tsinandali Estate was gorgeous – an afternoon show, performed outdoors on a sunny day, with birds chirping in the background. (Conductor Daniel Harding stepped in for Daniel Barenboim.) The prominent violinist Lisa Batiashvili, who comes from Georgia and is now an artist in residence at the Berlin Philharmonic, performed the solos in Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major with power and exquisite sensitivity.

The next night, the orchestra performed the same show at the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theater – not far from where some of the protests took place – followed by considerable applause and the unfurling of a couple of European Union flags. It was hard to miss the symbolism – not nationalism but something more open-hearted. The politics never overshadowed the music, which was powerful in its own right, but it was clear how much the music, and the idea of Europe, meant to the Georgian audience. Sometimes concerts are the continuation of policy by other means.

Georgia sits a crossroads between Europe and Asia – always geographically and now politically as well. Culturally, the country has always faced West – it’s mostly Eastern Orthodox, and it was part of the Soviet Union before it gained independence. In December, under the current government, Georgia officially received candidate status to join the European Union, which the majority of people there seem to favor and would place the country firmly in the West. And although the overlap of the Europakonzert and the debate about the proposed law is just coincidental, it seemed to hint at two possible paths forward for the country: A kind of international optimism or a narrower nationalism.

The Tsinandali Estate, which was leased from the government and renovated by the Silk Road Group, a Georgian company, has its own particularly European cultural history. The estate, which fell into disrepair during the Soviet era, is identified with Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, a Georgian aristocrat, who used it in the 1800s to bring to Georgia European-style wine, formal gardens and classical music. Silk Road, which has restored the estate to its former glory with an eye toward historic preservation, now operates two hotels there, as well as nearby vineyard and a fall classical music festival that features young performers from across the Caucasus region. This, too, is profoundly optimistic.

“We thought, ‘How can we bring life to’” the estate, says George Ramishvili, the Silk Road Group’s founder and chairman. “And we chose classical music because it’s related to history.”

Europakonzert
Europakonzert

Years ago, Ramishvili connected with the Berlin Philharmonic through Batiashvili, and they started discussing brining the annual Europakonzert to Georgia. “It’s the perfect music but also the message for peace – we’re both about a united Europe,” Ramishvili says. “Europe is Georgia and Georgia is Europe.”

Everything about the concerts brought that idea home. At both shows, the audience seemed to be mostly middle-class Georgians, probably a few years older and a bit more fortunate than most of the protesters, who skewed younger. But they both want more engagement with a Europe that has put aside its conflicts. The European Union has its share of problems, but it represents a more compelling vision of the future than anything coming out of Russia.

None of this hung over the concerts, though. The annual Europakonzert, which is usually but not always performed in an EU member state, is symbolic, for a variety of reasons, including where it happens and the role of Berlin, which has become the cultural capital of Europe. But anyone who didn’t understand the politics, or simply wanted to forget them, would have found the shows just as compelling without that context. At Tsinandali, the stone walls of the amphitheater seemed to magnify the sound, as birdsong broke through the quiet parts of Schubert’s The Magic Harp. Batiashvili brought a richness of tonal color to Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D Major, especially in the Tbilisi Opera and Ballet State Theater, where Harding brought out the orchestra’s power.

Music diplomacy has been a tradition since at least the 1950s, when the U.S. State Department arranged for “Jazz Ambassadors,” most famously Louis Armstrong, to tour the world. Musicians seldom solve international disagreements, and it’s not their job to do so, but shows like this bring countries closer together in a way that shows what they have to offer one another. These two shows made a powerful case for both the value of the European idea and its potential for expansion.

Europakonzert
Europakonzert

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