Tsinandali: Zubin Mehta Leads the IPO in an Enchanted Evening of Music in Georgia's Kakheti Region

Tsinandali: Zubin Mehta Leads the IPO in an Enchanted Evening of Music in Georgia's Kakheti Region

To listen to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra (IPO) conducted by Zubin Mehta playing Tchaikovsky in a newly constructed 1000-person open-air auditorium at a country estate on a summer’s night is heavenly and it is hard to imagine a classical music experience more intimate and emotional. Even more remarkable, this concert was taking place on the grounds of the Tsinandali Estate in the Republic of Georgia’s Kakheti region, some two and a half hours from Tbilisi, the capital, to launch a new classical music festival that will debut in 2019.

What was it that brought 1000 guests, a full orchestra and Maestro Mehta to Georgia? It was, simply, the power of an idea and people with the vision and resources to make it happen.

First, a little background: Tsinandali was the Georgian village that was home to Alexander Chavchavadze (1786–1846), a Georgian poet and aristocrat, who was a God-son of Catherine The Great. After inheriting the property from his father Prince Garsevan, Chavchavadze built an Italianate villa there in 1818 as well as extensive European decorative gardens on the estate which the elder Alexander Dumas dubbed “The Garden of Eden.”

Chavchavadze also built Georgia’s oldest and largest winery in Tsinandali. He was the first in Georgia to bottle his estate wine, which was highly regarded, particularly the Tsinandali white wine which is made to this day. By the end of the 19th Century the estate became the property of the Russian Tsar. After the Russian revolution, when Georgia became a Soviet Republic, it served as a retreat for Soviet officials. A museum was established there in 1947, before the property fell into disuse and disrepair.

Now for the vision: George Ramishvili ,who was born and grew up in Georgia, has become, since Georgia become independent in 1991, one of Georgia’s most prominent business leaders. Ramishvili is the Chairman of Silk Road Group, which Ramishvilli told me had its initial success in “logistics and transportation.” As I was told by several employees, after the fall of the Soviet Union, Ramishvilli found success in being able to trade in and safely transport oil and gas products throughout the region to Kazakhstan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Russia and Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

After the Rose Revolution in 2003, Georgia strengthened its relations with the West and Silk Road Group found particular success in supplying the American forces in Afghanistan. They continue to supply, as their website explains, “jet A-1 aviation fuel and container cargoes to the Joint Forces in Afghanistan.”

In success came diversification, and for Ramishvili, investment in Georgia. Silk Road Group is behind several Radisson Blu hotels in Tbilisi, National Geographic Georgia which was launched in 2012, as well as a Radisson Blu Hotel in the Georgian Seaside resort of Batumi (Georgia’s second largest city). Beginning in 2010, a number of high rises and hotels were built in Batumi including a Sheraton in 2010 and the Radisson Blu in 2011. There is also Grand Hotel Kempinski and a Hilton Hotel. In 2012, in an effort to validate Batumi as a place for international residential investment, Silk Road Group announced they would build a Trump Tower in Batumi for which Donald Trump traveled to Georgia to make the announcement. After Trump’s election as President of the United States in 2016, The Trump Organization withdrew from the deal. Silk Road Group still intends to build what it now refers to as Silk Road Tower. (n.b., a recent article in The New Yorker questioned the finances of Trump’s Batumi deal and suggested that an investigation of it might eventually tie Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin through investors in the project; however such speculation in the article remains unproven and was vigorously denied by everyone I interviewed from Silk Road in Georgia).

But back to Tsinandali: About a decade ago, Ramishvili entered into a long-term agreement to lease, restore and develop the Chavchavadze property into a cultural and tourist center. With the cooperation of the Smithsonian Institution and the National Parliamentary Library of Georgia, restoration of the gardens and the main house began. The Museum was revived. A small guest house/hotel was readied. The vineyard was brought back to production and the wine cellar restored and restocked. It was Ramishvili’s belief that if the Georgian people feel they are part of Tsninandali, they will come and visit. Public support of the project has been great, as in 2016, according to Ramishvili, some 100,000 visitors came to see Tsinandali.

Still, Ramishvilli was searching for a way to give Tsnindali a greater purpose and give tourists from the entire region and abroad a greater reason to visit Tsinandali. And then he went to Verbier and met Martin Engstroem and Avi Shoshani, two well known figures in the classical music world and the founders of the Verbier Classical Music festival.

As Shoshani recently recounted, Engstroem had been a successful artist’s agent whom he had met in Paris and with whom he had become friends. Engstroem had a home in Verbier where Shoshani visited him in the summer. Verbier is a celebrated Swiss ski resort which is fully booked in winter, but the resort was searching for a way to attract summer visitors. Engstroem proposed creating a summer classical musical festival with Shoshani, Secretary General of the IPO, which they launched in 1994. They found success based on creating a festival with several components: “We have our academy where we educate people,” Shoshani explained, “We have our orchestra for which we audition all over the world and our age limit is between 18-29. We have master classes, and a lot of chamber music which we put in unusual combinations like Isaac Stern with Natalia Gutman, or with Gidon Kremer, Yefin Bronfam, etc. What we are very proud of is that we discover new talent, we follow them through, and when they become important and world-celebrated they return to Verbier to teach; so we close the circle.”

“We strongly believe that education brings people together to listen to music,” Shoshani told me. “At the end of the concert everyone comes out smiling.”

Ramishvili loved Verbier so much, he approached Engstroem and Shoshani about creating a similar festival for Georgia in Tsinandali that he would finance. “We said let’s go see the place. It’s crucial,” Shoshani recalled. They fell in love with Tsinandali and together with Ramishvilli, Engstroem and Shoshani became excited about the festival’s potential to transform the region.

“The major idea here is that we want to create a Pan-Caucasian [Youth] Orchestra. We want to use the international language of music to create a dialogue in the countries which are not always so friendly,” Shoshani explained. “We want to have on the same stage musicians from Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Chechnya, Kazakhstan, Georgia. And I’ve seen it happen when you speak the same language, the language of music, you discover you are talking to people, and you can be friends.”

The other innovation for Tsinandali is that Ramishvili is going to build a campus for the visiting music students, the orchestra, and the guest artists where they can connect and interact. There will also be a modern Radisson Blu Hotel and Spa. As well as the vineyard and wine cellar. “The dream is to create and make an educational and cultural center in this place and add a touch of wine,” Ramishvili said. With the Georgian Prime Minsiter Giorgi Kvirikashvili’s support the Georgian Government committed $5 Million to support the Tsinandali festival; Ramishvili also secured support and financing from the Georgian Partnership Fund and OPIC (Overseas Private Investment Corporation) for the Radisson Blu hotel.

Shoshani is confident that they can create a successful festival. “We will bring what we know very well how to do [by attracting] the best of the best. Between Martin and I, we basically cover the complete scope of music makers.” Shoshani believes the idea of a Pan-Caucasus [Youth] Orchestra is a compelling concept. “Making history and bringing peace [to the region] not from the top down but from the bottom up.” Added Ramishvili, “Culture will be a very good connector for these young people and I feel this cultural initiative will yield a very positive result for the region… This is an investment in our future.” In the last decade tourism has grown greatly in Georgia, with an estimated 6 Million foreign visitors to Georgia this year; the hope is that the Tsinandali festival will draw even more visitors to Georgia.

Which brings us back to the concert itself, which took place on September 14th in the newly constructed 1000 seat outdoor auditorium with Ramishvili and Silk Road Group among the sponsors of the evening (as well as of the press tour that brought me there). The design incorporates ancient stone walls and is meant to suggest the walls of a medieval ruin, such as dot the Kakheti region, but with state of the art lighting, specially engineered and tuned acoustics, and a cantilevered roof.

Zubin Mehta is in his 80s, but like many an experienced and professional entertainer when he walks on stage, he suddenly stands taller, there is a determination in his step and the years fall away. The IPO is one of the world’s great orchestras and they, too, are certainly expert at playing standards from their repertoire. Nonetheless, it was stirring as they played the Georgian National Anthem – you could feel how much it meant to the mostly Georgian audience to hear their anthem in this historic place. The IPO followed with “Hatikva,” The Israeli National Anthem, which Mehta delivered with tremendous emotion (The audience included a large “Friends of the IPO” contingent hailing from England, Switzerland, France, and Israel and I am certain I saw of few of them dabbing at their eyes during its performance).

The evening’s program proceeded in two parts. In the first, the IPO played Enescu, Schumann, Liszt and Debussy, featuring the Georgian-born internationally known pianist Khatia Buniatishvili (who is on the Tsninadali Festivals’s board). Buniatishvili is famous for her fiery and tempestuous performances. Here she showed a quieter more sensitive side in performing Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A Major. Nonetheless, she did not disappoint in her passionate performance of the more fiery passages of the evening’s program. The second half of the evening belonged to Tchaikovsky (Symphony No. 5, Swan Lake, and the No. 2 Waltz) which the audience enjoyed thoroughly applauding with gusto. The event was live streamed on Medici.Tv (where it can be watched until December).

An enchanted evening at a legendary estate with the IPO and Zubin Mehta in a part of the world many foreigners have yet to visit — that’s memorable. The combination of Engstroem, Shoshani and Ramishvili – that’s formidable. As for The Tsinandali Festival, with its new hotel, restored gardens, wine cellar and vineyard, and the promise of a pan-Caucasus Youth Orchestra – that’s worth marking your calendars to attend in 2019.

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