Sochi Winter International Festival of Arts

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Elizabeth Davis reports from a Russian music festival a-buzz with Olympic preparations

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Sochi Concert HallI did not expect to see my first Strauss Die Fledermaus in a small Russian city near the Georgian border. But then very little about my trip to the Sochi International Winter Arts Festival has been as I expected.

Sochi is on the coast of the Black Sea and the modern town was mostly constructed in the 1930s as a summer retreat for Stalin-era aristocracy. More recently, it was chosen to host the 2014 Winter Olympics and the city, a year before the flame reaches its walls, resembles nothing so much as a building site (see below).

SochiHere, amidst the rubble and half-constructed high-rise hotels, the Sochi Winter Arts Festival is in its sixth year and brings together classical music, jazz, visual arts, theatre, education projects and film screenings.

One of the many things I didn’t know about Sochi before planning my trip was that it is four hours ahead of the UK. So, struggling with some rather disorientating jet-lag, I took my seat for a semi-staged performance of the afore-mentioned Fledermaus.

The New Russia State Symphony Orchestra was conducted by ex-Vienna Philharmonic violinist Johannes Wildner (pictured below with, left-to-right, Andreas Jankowitsch, Jörg Schneider and Alexandra Reinprecht) and the soloists were practically all Austrian.

The performance was as light-filled and fluffy as it should have been – but performed with a straight-face and a profound and intimate knowledge of Strauss’s music and the Viennese tradition – as you’d expect from a conductor who, talking to me after the performance, described himself as ‘a child of the Vienna Philharmonic in a musical sense and an emotional sense.’

Die FledermausSoprano Alexandra Reinprecht made Rosalinde’s arias sound effortless and Jörg Schneider was a lovable buffoon in the role of Alfred. But the glue holding this performance together was Wildner: I don’t thing I’ve ever seen a conductor work so hard. Sweat was pouring off him as the audience applauded – and we’d only reached the end of the overture.

Georgian foodOver some traditional Georgian food (left) later he explained that he’d had three days to rehearse the piece with the orchestra in Moscow. ‘It is a great challenge because Russian orchestras react totally differently to Viennese ones. I’m very happy that I had the chance to rehearse with them for three days to explain why we play the polka this way, why we play the mazurkas this way – because all the Johann Strauss operettas consist of these dance forms. It was very beautiful but challenging to bring the orchestra onto this track. This concert is like one small lighthouse on a long, long journey.’

When I asked him why he’d come to Sochi to perform his reply was intriguing. ‘Everybody knows Sochi, nobody knows Sochi. Everybody knows the city now because the Olympic Games will be here next year, but before that announcement, nobody knew Sochi. In the 19th century a lot of people from the Circassian tribe were killed and forced to move away from here. But we shouldn’t point the finger and say “you killed them”, we should just think “this genocide was possible, what can we change?” For me the answer is always cultural exchange. This festival for me is important to bring people together. Can you imagine how little money is in culture and how much money is in war?’

Sochi is certainly not a town spoilt for culture and perhaps as a result, the festival audiences are hugely appreciative. Sochi Winter International Festival of Arts has some way to go in the director’s aim of competing with the likes of the Edinburgh and Salzburg Festivals, but this annual cultural event has the support of the Winter Olympics committee and it’s hard to resist the enthusiasm of an audience who shower the stage with flowers every night.