The drive from Tbilisi airport to the Tsinandali Estate should take about two hours, but it’s a much swifter journey in the very early morning. We zoom serenely along the quiet highways, slowing only to swerve stray dogs who have wandered onto the road. Each swerve is a sudden lurch that jolts me out of snatches of sleep, and each jolt reveals another increment in a long, slow sunrise. The Georgia from out the car window has plains that seem flatter than any flatlands I’ve ever seen, and huge mountains lurk menacingly as we skirt around their foothills. But all of it is shrouded in a murky light that’s slow to clear, even in intervals. By the time the day has revealed itself, the car has slowed to a crawl. We turn off the road, clunk over a speed bump, and enter another world entirely.
For 50 weeks of the year, the Radisson Collection at Tsinandali is a luxury get-away for rich Georgians and international visitors, including a steady stream of Russian guests. There’s everything one might expect from a modern, five-star resort—though, having never stayed in a modern, five-star resort, the three restaurants, two swimming pools, two tennis courts, two bars, gym, sauna, and automatic shoe-shining machines seem a little ostentatious.
(In a statement, a spokesperson for the Tsinandali Festival said, “Radisson Tsinandali Hôtel is proud to be named as one of the best Radisson Collection hotels globally. Everyone regardless of their social status, orientation, nationality, religion or race is welcome at our hotel as we are following the Georgian tradition of outmost hospitality.”)
For the remaining two weeks, the resort hosts the Tsinandali Festival. (Full disclosure: the festival paid for my travel and accommodation to attend.) The artistic directors, Martin Engstroem and Avi Shohani, previously founded the Verbier Festival, and the line-up for this year’s festival is clearly drawn from the same contact book: Augustin Hadelich, Michael Barenboim, Manfred Honeck, and Gautier Capuçon are some of the familiar names from the international circuit making the journey to Georgia this year. The Tsinandali Festival is young—it celebrates its fifth edition this year—but already, it has imported many of the conservative aspects of festivals ten times its age. Chamber music recitals happen during the day—piano, violin, cello; Rachmaninoff, Schubert, Schumann—and orchestral concerts—veg-and-meat, concerto-symphony, Dvořák-Beethoven—in the evenings, with formal wear, canapés, and a general air of exclusivity. That “music is an international language” is, perhaps obviously, a mantra repeated a lot during the festival, and, more obviously still, you clearly see through the programming exactly what music organizers assume is the world’s musical lingua franca. But Tsinandali also shows how classical music, as a product, an idea, can be both sold and bought into: initially, as an artform, and later, as a barely disguised means to other ends.
(The representative for festival said, “The slogan of the festival ‘in the name of music’ is not just words, Tsinandali Festival is widely recognized by some of the world’s most reputable organizations in the classical music industry as a place where music is the centerpiece and everything Tsinandali does for the entire duration of the Festival is dedicated to music, musicians and to the idea of celebrating music as an outstanding form of art bridging important dialogue of peace between all people from around the world.”)
2023 is a huge year for Georgian politics, as the European Union decides whether to allow its candidacy at the end of the year, and, alongside Tbilisi’s pro-Ukrainian and distinctly anti-Russian graffiti, the other thing you notice in the city is just how many EU flags there are, flying pointedly. The animating question of West-leaning sections of Georgian society is not the age-old East meets West question, but the Georgia meets Europe question. The country is sharply divided between the public, who in March polled at over 75 percent in favor of joining the bloc, and the Georgian government—currently led by the Georgian Dream party—who have been accused of moving closer to Moscow, sliding towards authoritarianism, and, most recently, of further derailing the process of joining the EU by threatening to impeach the sitting president, Salome Zourabichvili, for meeting officials in Berlin and Brussels.
The reason for Zourabichvili’s visits was to seek an update on support from within the EU for Georgia’s candidacy. In 2022, the EU passed Georgia over for candidate status, while at the same time putting Ukraine and Moldova through to the next stage. Later, the EU set out 12 recommendations to address before candidacy could be offered to Georgia, a wide-ranging list ranging from judicial and anti-corruption reforms, to the enshrining of human rights and moves to enhance gender equality.
Of particular concern is the EU’s requirement for “de-oligarchization,” as Georgia, a country which has historically glorified the strong man, now bows to the rich man.
(The spokesperson for the Tsinandali Festival said, “Accusing Georgians in being a nation that ‘historically glorified the strong man,’ and ‘bows to rich man’… is an insult to this democratic nation.”)
Bidzina Ivanishvili, Georgia’s richest individual (net worth: $4.9 billion) and for a time the Prime Minister of the country, founded Georgian Dream, a party that has won majorities at the past three elections. In 2021, Ivanishvili declared he was leaving politics, but critics weren’t convinced that ever happened. In a speech to the EU parliament following the announcement of Georgia’s stalled candidacy, Lithuanian Member of European Parliament Rasa Juknevičienė couldn’t have been clearer: “de-oligarchization,” she said, meant the “de-Bidzinization” or “de-Ivanishvilization” of Georgia.”
It’s easy to see traces of similar individuals at Tsinandali. At a press conference—where questions from the press weren’t taken—George Ramishvili, chairman of the Silk Road Group and Tsinandali festival founder and underwriter (up to $1 million per year, according to Tsinandali management), sat in the middle seat of the top table, with the Festival’s co-founders and artistic directors, its musical director, and representatives from the foreign ministries of Italy and Norway spreading out on each side.
(The representative for the Tsinandali Festival strongly disputed any comparison between Ramishvili and Ivanishvili. “Implying that Mr. Ramishvili, one of the co-founders of the Tsinandali Festival, is a trace of certain oligarchy in Georgia is misleading,” the representative said. He also disputes the claim that Ramishvili underwrites the festival, saying instead that the festival is sponsored by the telecommunications firm JSC Silknet.)
The conference was broadcast on Euronews Georgia, a franchise of the Lyon-based news channel set up by Ramishvili, in the bar of the Radisson, whose expansion into Georgia was brokered by Ramishvili’s Silk Road Hospitality Group. At the press conference, Shoshani said, seemingly without irony, that the speedy construction of a hotel at the bottom of Tsinandali site (to house the young musicians of the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra) was something only China could pull off.
That Ramishvili, a man who reportedly encouraged Donald Trump to build a Trump Tower in Batumi to lure investors to the Georgian seaside resort, and whose Silk Road Group was linked to the BTA banking scandal, is now funneling money into classical music might seem an odd way to build soft power. But it’s working. Apparently seeking to wrest the financial burden of the festival away from Ramishvili and other private donors, the Festival is soliciting investment from foreign governments, and already, it has attracted support from Italy, Norway, and Switzerland. Next year, the Festival has extended an invite to the Berlin Philharmonic and Daniel Barenboim, something that will raise the festival’s profile among Georgia’s establishment. “They understand that this is not only [about] the music,” says David Sakvarilidze, general director of the festival. “A Berlin Philharmonic appearance in Georgia is a statement.”
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The Festival says its centerpiece is the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra, but really, it’s the throughline. From August 31 to September 10, they perform five times, mostly conducted by their artistic director, Gianandrea Noseda. This is the third, particularly “pan” edition of the youth orchestra, with members of the orchestra this year hailing from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, Turkmenistan, and Ukraine, ranging in age from 17 to 29. Like every youth orchestra project, gaps occur because of absentees, and last-minute guest players appear from outside even the most generous definition of the Caucuses: Israel, Moldova, Serbia, and Switzerland are all represented.
Last year, The Telegraph crowed that the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra was the orchestra “where Ukrainians and Russians play together.” All was not well though, as some Ukrainian musicians tell me over coffee on the first day. A handful of Russian musicians—technically banned from participating, but invited anyway—were pro-Putin, and made their feelings known, creating a particularly challenging environment for the Ukrainian musicians in the orchestra. This year, there is only one Russian player. Her presence is all very hush-hush to the public, though less so to her colleagues. Her nationality was listed in an internal document circulated among the orchestral members, she tells me, but her nationality, along with all the other nationalities of the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra, doesn’t appear in the publicly available program.
“On an official level, we cannot afford to bring [Russian musicians]. The state will not give us a chance to bring someone from Russia now, because we don’t have diplomatic relations,” says Sakvarelidze. Ties were severed after the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, where, according to Amnesty International, 192,000 civilians were displaced. Today, 20 percent of Georgian territory is occupied by Russia: in Abkhazia to the west of the country, and South Ossetia to the north. “Officially, we are in a state of war against Russia,” Sakvarelidze continues, “but we are afraid. We are scared because Russia can send one missile, and they can destroy anything.”
Sakvarelidze wears the frazzled look of arts administrators the world over. “I am always around,” he says at the end of nearly every conversation, to introduce, take a call, or simply liaise between Georgian and non-Georgian colleagues. A man of the theater, he studied in Milan, London, and New York, and, following Georgian independence, founded the Caucasian Theatre/Lab, before transferring to Tbilisi State Opera and Ballet, and finally coming to Tsinandali in the organization’s infancy.
It’s been his life’s work to change Georgia’s institutions: “The management is still Soviet-type, so we need to change that if the EU will accept us.” He cites Georgia’s state orchestra model as an example of how, 30 years since the fall of the Soviet Union, their bureaucratic setups persist, and laments the lack of technical training for work in theaters. “You should bring up new people to work in this new system,” he says. “There’s a lot of education of things that we have to do.”
Sakvarelidze cites the Barenboim-Saïd Academy in Berlin and Germany’s twinning system as the kinds of examples Georgia might look to implement, and it’s not the first time that Germany is touted as the gold-standard by Sakvarelidze or the Festival. (With Germany and Georgia signing a cultural memorandum in 2022, expect closer links between the two countries in years to come.) On a brief tour of the amphitheater, looking out over the grand gardens around the Tsinandali estate, both Valhalla and Georgia’s answer to Bayreuth are mentioned in the same breath. (The latter is not an unimaginable comparison, visually at least.) There’s obviously a lot of pride in what’s been achieved in a short space of time, tempered by the frustration of how slow progress seems elsewhere.
“In this very crucial moment for us, classical music, art is becoming the tool of getting attention from the rest of the world,” Sakvarelidze says.
The location of the Tsinandali Festival, on a hill, is revealing. Looking down over the estate from the very top of the hill is the Radisson Hotel, akin to a strategically positioned, stately English home in its splendor and sight-lines. On the opening night of the festival, a decadent banquet for special guests stretches on an elevated terrace to the right of the hotel, with one long golden table, golden chairs, grapes on golden platters, and, for the only time during my stay, traditional Georgian singing, heard but not seen by audience gathered on the concourse after the concert.
Down the steps from the hotel, heading through the large sun terrace (past a comically malfunctioning water fountain), you arrive at the former wine cellars, where the first corked wine bottle in Georgia was produced. Their insides have been gutted, and made into a concert hall, conference rooms, restaurants, and other bits of hotel ephemera. Passing the airy amphitheater on the right, cobbles turn into tarmac and then into a road, which snakes down a leafy avenue, past some suggestive corporate decorations (a selfie mirror with “Music Belongs To Everyone” sponsored by Visa, and a Silknet sign that dwarfs the Tsinandali Festival one next to it); goes alongside the recently restored villa of Georgian aristocratic poet Alexander Chavchavadze, passes the abandoned head of Vladimir Lenin, and takes in some tinny Mozart playing from a speaker disguised as a rock, before reaching the Estate’s imposing old gates.
There, the road forks. Each option leads downwards still: turn left, past some single-storey villas currently under construction, and walk just a bit further, almost to the highway, and you eventually reach the Park Hotel, a building more akin to a hastily assembled motel, that houses the youth orchestra for the duration of the festival. Orchestra members grumble about practically everything regarding the Park Hotel: the food, the noise, the small rooms, the disruptive other guests. There is something Dickensian about Tsinandali, with its young musicians at the bottom of the hill only integrating with the paying guests at the top of the hill when there’s entertainment involved.
A day-trip with the orchestra out of Tsinandali therefore feels like a relief. The orchestra piles onto coaches and takes the ten-minute drive to the tiny city of Telavi to rehearse, in more ordinary surroundings. “We have a lot of these sorts of venues in Ukraine,” Stefan Bulyha, a clarinetist studying in London, says while admiring the Vazha-Pshavela Theater, a massive solemn concrete structure you might find on a AestheticBrutalism Instagram page (whose complete inappropriateness to the local architectural context is revealed by a 30-second walk down the street). Inside the building, I think of Sakvarilidze’s comments about the residue of the Soviet Union in Georgia as I wander around an auditorium untouched in the 40 or so years since its creation, its vibe relentlessly brown.
As is the case in many European countries, the definition of “youth” in the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra is much older than in the UK, a difference most clearly demonstrated when the promise of a cigarette break becomes the motivating factor for players to concentrate through Noseda’s exacting rehearsals. Among the smokers, there’s a high proportion studying at conservatory, and all are just as ambitious as any other college-level musicians. I ask Oleg Yuzkiv, a violinist from Ukraine, what the dream is. “I don’t know, maybe playing in the Berlin Philharmonic, or in Washington D.C., because Noseda is the chief conductor there.” “Or London Symphony,” Stefan chimes in. “London Symphony!” they agree.
Though there’s a general drive to succeed, the diversity of backgrounds is vast. Paths into music often resemble that of bassoonist Ece Nur Özer: born in Turkey, she studies in Freiburg, but is currently training at the WDR Sinfonieorchester Academy in Cologne. Some conservatory students see the orchestra as a stepping-stone to more prestigious training orchestras, particularly the Verbier Festival Orchestra, given the clear links between the two ensembles. At the other end of the spectrum, Ismail, a double bass player from Turkmenistan, studied his instrument with a percussion teacher, and used YouTube to learn the rest; Nino, a cellist from Georgia, needed an instrument, which the Festival found the money for. (The Festival provides flights, accommodation, transport food, board, and in some cases instruments free of charge for its youth orchestra; though, as one member points out, these young players on the fringes of professional work are not being paid to play there.)
Day-to-day, the PCYO is no pan-national utopia, but instead an extremely normal youth orchestra. Outside of rehearsals, musicians divide out into groups; sometimes down national lines, sometimes because of a shared language (though the group is divided about whether it’s appropriate to speak Russian), and sometimes because of levels of friendliness. In fours and fives, they gossip like nobody’s business: about the sullen, uncommunicative members of the orchestra, or the ones whose online presence is a bit much. But despite the complaining, there’s a large sense of pride in being here. “PCYO ‘23” is added to list of achievements chronicled in their Instagram bios, and the day after each concert, social media is filled with photos of the ensemble with the various international stars who have jetted in for a few hours.
Most of the love is reserved for Gianandrea Noseda, who rehearses the orchestra in the perfect youth orchestra way: demanding and rigorous, but with lashings of kindness, possessing an uncanny ability to remember people’s names, and using a language where speech and singing are interchangeable. (The orchestra rehearses in English, though the understanding is far from uniform across the orchestra.) “When you talk [like that] about intonation, articulation, they understand immediately, whatever language,” he says; it’s all in the tk-tk-tk-tk’s, and the di-da-di-da-di-da’s. Without really realizing it, Noseda’s freeform utterances—growls, howls, wordlessness—come closest to finding a genuinely international musical language: one that sounds like nonsense.
One morning, the orchestra rehearses Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Minor with Yefim Bronfman. The standard of the orchestra has improved significantly from recent years, the players tell me, but finding a string blend is one of the orchestra’s main challenges. A section in the second movement keeps going wrong, and Noseda teases the nervous first violins. “Allegro con panico,” he says smilingly.
“You’re not a soldier,” Noseda tells the section in a tone-deaf moment. (Sometimes nonsense is a safer language than English.) The PCYO’s clearest precursor is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: though it lacks an Edward Saïd-type figure to give it an intellectual grounding, the PCYO is built on similarly knotted but uniquely complicated network of geopolitical tensions, both historic and contemporary. This year, the oboe section consists of players from Azerbaijan, Turkey, and Armenia. Shortly after I return home, Azerbaijan (allied with Turkey) invades Armenia in the Nagorno-Karabakh region, with ethnic Armenians in the area fleeing, in fear of reprisals.
Unpacking some of these stories with orchestral members—who are friendly, if generally shattered after two weeks of intensely scheduled practices—is tricky, but a few are keen to talk out of hours. On my final evening, I sit in the lobby with Mariia, a violinist from Kharkhiv who has played in the orchestra before. She brings a friend, Oleksii, mostly to help with translation, but the two end up giving me an hour-long, rapid-fire distillation of the past few years.
Mariia isn’t really at home at the festival, musically speaking. Her strengths, and dreams, are in chamber music; a committed trio and quartet player, she hopes to one day record an album of violin sonatas accompanied by her sister, a pianist. Mariia fled Ukraine and settled in Hanover, leaving her mother, father, and sister in Kharkiv. Their daily routine involved long stretches in makeshift shelters to avoid shelling. (Today, her father remains in the city.) It’s almost impossible to imagine a return there. “I really would like to stay [abroad], because I understand I can have more opportunities,” she says. “Ukraine is going to need so many more years before this.”
Oleksii dreams of a return to Ukraine, where he would play his part in a Ukrainian cultural renaissance as a teacher and performer. He finished his degree in Odessa during the war, and was living in a student house in the city, but the constant anxiety meant he couldn’t practice his viola without his bow juddering. Alternative accommodation, near Odessa airport—a symbolic and strategic target for Russian attacks—wasn’t much better. Later, he came to Tsinandali, before settling at an academy in Detmold. “Thanks to this orchestra, I could cross the border during the war,” he says, allowing him to escape conscription.
Both musicians are frank about Russia and its continued influence, particularly when it comes to using the Russian language. (It’s a contentious subject, even among the Ukrainian musicians.) But they also see Georgia’s Catch-22, being on Ukraine’s side but unwilling to fully express their solidarity for fear of reprisals. “Georgia is a kind country, and kindness can destroy you,” Oleksii notes grimly.
The PCYO is three years old, and is making good progress. The most important aspect for the orchestral management in the next few years is that it becomes more widely known across the Caucuses, and with every edition (and every Instagram post) visibility grows. “The power of the Tsinandali Estate and Georgia as a whole is in our extraordinary hospitality,” Ramishvili said in a statement. “Our doors, hearts and minds are open to everyone who loves music and cares about peace and prosperity in the world.” Many orchestral members would love to tour with the orchestra—though a logistical nightmare, it makes sense for an orchestra formed to span nations to tour to all the countries represented within—but now, it remains at Tsinandali. It’s a problem with every ambitious musical project like this, administered by an external entity: At what point do you set your baby free, and let it be its own thing? As it is for the Divan orchestra, which still reckons with Barenboim’s influence over two decades since its foundation, the answer for the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra seems to be, not just yet.
The orchestra is rehearsing Brahms when I feel myself starting to cry. The whole Tsinandali experience is overwhelming: a festival determined to soft-power its way towards closer relations with Europe by playing from the continent’s most conservative tunebook, fronted by a young orchestra bound by ambition and tragedy. It’s easy—and necessary—to be cynical about the “music as an international language” shtick when it’s used as a cover for the advancement of business interests, or as a shortcut to getting important, monied people in the same room. But it’s much harder when facing 80 or so young people, committed enough to the idea of classical music to leave their families behind, cross continents, and work with nationalities they have every reason to despise. Maybe they’re variously tired, enthused, happy, pissed off, melancholy or bored, but they all have made efforts to arrive at an opportunity others elsewhere might find quotidian. The music isn’t particularly powerful—it’s Brahms, played by a college-level orchestra, something that happens all the time, in many countries across the world. Instead, it’s realizing the price of ordinariness, and that sometimes, normality requires miracles. ¶
Update, 10/16/2023: This article has been updated to include statements from a representative of the Tsinandali Festival and George Ramishvili, the founder of the Tsinandali Festival.
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