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CONTINUUM in Azerbaijan and Georgia

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Sunday evening was the opening of the festival, which, as in Baku, was the first of its kind in Tbilisi. "Mtskheta 2001 Festival" was an international festival of performing arts, of which ours was the only event of contemporary music. The festival bears the name of the ancient capital of Georgia, a small town located a short drive north of Tbilisi. It is hoped that future festivals will actually be held in Mtskheta, but since facilities were not ready there, this year's festival was held in Tbilisi's fanciful Moorish-style Opera House. The first concert was a double bill, beginning with a Spanish flamenco group, but the real hit was the Rustavi Georgian Ensemble. This astounding company performs folk dance, choreographed to Georgian folk music, with the greatest precision and sophistication, with live musical segments provided by superb men's vocal and instrumental ensembles. We urge you to see them on one of their tours. Continuum wondered how we could possibly follow an act like that! The next day, however, we mustered our courage. Our main challenge was to project our program in the large Opera House, especially the subtle facial expressions called for in Francis Schwartz's Cannibal Caliban. Fortunately, the acoustics were superb. We had been asked to do a half-American and half-Georgian program, a great pleasure since Continuum had already years before given specialized programs in music of the Caucasus republics, and we had performed much music of the most celebrated Georgian composer (now living in Germany), Giya Kancheli. We programmed a major piano quartet by Kancheli, and short pieces by various Georgian composers whose music we had been sent. Most was of the conservative, older generation, but we selected some marvelous pieces by composers new to us. (We were able to meet several of them at our afternoon dress rehearsal.) The big hit of the evening was a group of Georgian folk melodies arranged exquisitely for string quartet by Sulkhan Tsintsadze, a composer of whom we must hear more. Our Continuum quartet brought down the house.

After the concert -- very late -- we and the festival entourage drove up to Mtskheta for a typical Georgian banquet. The big room had a very long table set for some 40 people, covered with small plates of the national dishes. Georgian cuisine is a wonder, with such creative dishes as sauteed eggplant covered with a paste of walnuts, garlic, and spices; a spicy red bean dish, served with a sort of cornbread crumpet; plates of greens, including red basil and big sprigs of tarragon; and the favorite national dish, khachapuri, a heavenly egg/cheese pie, vaguely similar to middle east flatbreads, but much richer and alas, more fattening. (The first person to open a good Georgian restaurant or take-out in Manhattan will have a goldmine!) Georgian banquets are highly ritualized affairs, with endless toasts in a specific order and format, and much wine. Ours was no exception. Master of Ceremonies was the head of the Composers' Union, whose music we had played, and toasts went on and on. Justine and Kenji had read their guidebook carefully about the toasts, and jaws dropped when Kenji, himself looking a little Georgian with a newly-forming beard, got up and delivered one of the toasts in perfect Georgian! The evening progressed to the late hours, with more toasts, and enhanced by impromptu ensemble singing by some of the men. As I demurred at yet another glass of wine, my Georgian seatmate said, "Oh, you won't have a problem; this is natural Georgian wine, meant for long parties!" We eventually made it home, although one of us did have "a problem", but that's a private story.

Fortunately for us, because of the Swissair flight schedule, we had to stay a couple of extra days! The day before our departure, a sightseeing trip was arranged to Mtskheta. This first capital of Georgia and ancient Christian center is in a gorgeous setting at the convergence of two rivers, and surrounded by low mountains. A guide accompanied us to the holy places. The Sveti-Tskhoveli Cathedral, dating from the 11th century, is on the site where Jesus' robe is said to be buried. The ancient Jvari Monastery, perched high on a hill outside town, is spectacularly lit at night. All the holy places were still in use for services. We heard a choir of nuns at the monastery and saw the baptism of a baby. It was fascinating to watch the priests, who seem to have a more relaxed relationship with their flock than one might see among their Western counterparts. Our day continued with a visit to an abandoned amphitheater by the river, the hoped-for site of the next Mtskheta festival, and was completed with another great Georgian meal on a paddlewheel boat named "The Titanic".

Thence back to Tbilisi and after midnight to the airport for the trip home.

*****

Upon reflection we could see that this experience was much more than another fascinating festival for us. The human bond established in both countries was powerful. This was international harmony at work on the most basic level. The audiences appreciated that we had made a great effort to share our art with them. The composers greatly valued the affirmation of an American group. The heroic festival staff -- officials and volunteers -- saw that we were giving strong moral support to their efforts to rebuild their country, and that we had such sincere appreciation for their culture and traditions. Throughout we were treated like family.

*****

That was June. Now it is after September 11. We received deeply touching e-mails of condolence from our festival friends in Baku and Tbilisi. One festival volunteer even phoned us from Tbilisi out of concern. Director of the Mtskheta Festival Rusiko Matsaberidze wrote, "I'm praying for the souls of those who were killed so ruthlessly, and I hope that your great nation will do everything necessary to make sure that things like this never happen again." Our constant companion in Baku, who took time from his medical practice to help us around, Dr. Rufat Garadaghi wrote, "Despite the huge distance separating us, I am with you, I grieve with you over the thousands of people who meaninglessly perished in this act of horrendous insanity....I am not alone. People in Baku are shocked and depressed. This morning I saw a big crowd laying hundreds of bunches of flowers on the lawn in front of the American embassy. This afternoon there was announced a minute of mourning in our country and the whole state froze for a minute with dipped flags in remembrance of the deceased....P.S. If you get a chance, please let me know you are OK. ----- Cheryl Seltzer

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