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CONTINUUM in Azerbaijan and Georgia

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ur trip at the end of May, 2001, to the Caucasus countries of Azerbaijan and Georgia may have lacked some exotic hallmarks of our Mongolia adventure the year before -- both countries, after all, do consider themselves part of Europe -- but nonetheless, our experience was extraordinary.

Under the auspices of Arts International, a joint public/private fund, and the Trust for Mutual Understanding, Continuum took nine musicians to these former republics of the Soviet Union: soprano Wonjung Kim, flutist Ulla Suoko, clarinetist David Gresham, violinists Tom Chiu and Justine Chen, violist Kenji Bunch, cellist Ariel de Wolf, Joel Sachs and myself. During a long layover enroute in Zürich, we were met by my old college friend Chita Meyer, who has lived there for many years. We soaked up lots of anti-jetlag sunshine with a relaxing boat ride on the beautiful lake. Departing that evening, we arrived in Baku in the wee hours and were met by festival staff. Our hotel was a delightful new establishment in a residential area, run by a young English expat, right next to the very grand, highly ornamented Libyan Embassy. (Wonder what they heard!)

Baku is a sophisticated cosmopolitan city of 1.7 million, nestled in totally arid surroundings but positioned beautifully on the Caspian Sea; a field of oil rigs in the bay reflects the abundance of that natural resource. Many buildings are made of tan stone, blending in with the desert color. In a lovely apartment overlooking the bay, we were treated to a reception by the American Embassy attended by Embassy officers, local musicians and academics. Our host, to our surprise, was Embassy Public Affairs Officer James Seward, who had given a similar party several years before when we performed in Kiev, Ukraine. (By another coincidence, the foreign service intern who organized the reception was a friend of my daughter Nomi.) After the reception, some of Continuum went to a popular restaurant, the Mugham Club, where, by further coincidence, they ran into our good friend, composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh there celebrating her birthday with her family.

Our concert was part of a festival of new music "Yeni Musiqi", coordinated by the indefatigable Jahangir Selimkhanov, a musicologist working on cultural projects at the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute office in Baku. Joel had been discussing this festival with Mr. Selimkhanov and the Azeri composer Faradzh Karayev for seven years before it was possible to overcome immense economic hurdles and bring it to fruition. The festival was meticulously planned, down to the opening press conference, which engaged the city's journalistic staffs, music professionals and government officials. Our concert was held in the historic German Church, a popular cultural center and venue for chamber music. The austere gothic style was warmed by bright colored windows in simple flower design, which let in a radiant light. The interior and stage furnishings were well-worn, but the audience provided a fantastic glow. Families with young children, music professionals, interested public, and the embassy staff cheered each piece in our program of American composers Paul Schoenfield, George Crumb, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Ursula Mamlok, Roberto Sierra, and Francis Schwartz. After the concert we were treated to a splendid dinner in an elegant private club.

The next day was free for tourism, which included Baku's incredible Museum of Carpets, where we learned that a good many "Persian Carpets" have actually been made by the huge Azeri population living in modern Iran. Festival staff accompanied us to the Old Town, where we had a private tour of the ancient fortress-like 15th-century Palace of the Shirvan-Shahs. Groups of visiting school children surrounded Tom Chiu, who chattered with them in all languages he could muster -- none of them at all relevant to the location -- and the repartee got so high spirited that it certainly set back years of teachers' efforts toward class discipline! continued...

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