Bucharest's international music festival takes a modern turn

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - One of Europe’s biggest classical music festivals, held in Romania’s capital city Bucharest, will increasingly showcase contemporary composers and performers from central and eastern Europe in the years ahead.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by George Enescu festival's new artistic director, Vladimir Jurowski, performs "Oedipe" on the opening night of the biennial George Enescu festival, in Bucharest, Romania, September 2, 2017. Inquam Photos/George Calin/via REUTERS

For three weeks in September, Bucharest forgets some of Europe’s worst traffic jams and its crumbling infrastructure as locals and visitors alike pack concert halls and flock to outdoor performances.

A pastry chain sells musical notation-shaped pretzels and fans tour the old city haunts of Romania’s most famous composer, George Enescu, after whom the biennial festival is named.

This year’s event will see pianist Martha Argerich, violinists Joshua Bell, David Garrett and Maxim Vengerov, conductors Antonio Pappano and Zubin Mehta as well as orchestras from Milan’s La Scala and Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw.

But nearly 60 years on from the festival’s founding in 1958, it will also debut a section dedicated to 21st century composers, at the urging of Vladimir Jurowski, principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and Enescu’s new artistic director.

Thirty contemporary composers will hold workshops and talks in Bucharest including Eliot Goldenthal, who won an Oscar for his score for the 2002 film drama Frida.

“There are generally more contemporary works performed in this festival than in any of the previous ones,” Jurowski told Reuters. “Without the music of the present there is no future.”

Jurowski got standing ovations as he opened the festival on Saturday conducting the LPO and the Choir of the George Enescu Philharmonic Orchestra and Romanian Radio Children’s Choir for the composer’s four-act opera Oedipe.

Growing up in communist Moscow, Jurowski remembers his family had a set of records including Oedipe, which he had always wanted to conduct and regarded as a pinnacle of 20th century opera alongside Igor Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, Claude Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande or Alban Berg’s Wozzeck.

Slideshow ( 5 images )

Jurowski also said future editions will strive to include more Romanian, Russian, Ukraininan, Czech, Serbian or Croatian musicians to promote the region’s cultural heritage.

“After the collapse of communist Romania and the eastern bloc in general there was a general perception that anything coming from the west has to be top quality,” he said.

“It’s certainly true but we should not forget that there is a whole layer of very, very deep-rooted culture in eastern Europe without which Enescu would not have happened as a composer and musician.”

“Hopefully, in the future the George Enescu festival will indeed become the center of Central and Eastern European music culture which ... embraces other cultures but does not forget its own heritage.”

One problem plaguing festival organizers is the lack of a proper concert hall. Orchestras perform in the 4,000-seat Sala Palatului hall which was built in 1960 for Communist Party meetings and has poor acoustics.

Successive governments, which provide the bulk of the festival’s budget through the culture ministry, have so far not made good on promises to replace it.

Culture Minister Lucian Romascanu said his ministry was working on plans to upgrade Sala Palatului and build a new multi-purpose hall.

“We’re talking about one of the most important music festivals in the world,” Jurowski said. “You need to build a big concert hall, also because it will propel forward Romania’s cultural life outside the festival.”

Until then, the festival’s enthusiastic public will have to make do.

“I come to the festival because I love Enescu, he is a representative for Romania, an international music force and he is beginning to be appreciated in the world,” said 68-year-old pensioner Sanda Nicolae.

“When our soul hurts, we find ourselves in his music.”

Additional reporting by Sinisa Dragin; Editing by Toby Chopra