An Orchestra Brings Harmony to a Region of Discord

The Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra unites players from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine with a message of peace and dialogue.

In February, Grigory Ambartsumyan, a 22-year-old Ukrainian violinist of Armenian descent, awoke in Kyiv to the sound of bombs. It was the beginning of Russia’s assault on his country, and the coming days and weeks were a blur of restless nights in bomb shelters.

Now, six months later and with war still raging, Ambartsumyan and dozens of his fellow musicians with the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra have reunited in Tsinandali, a bucolic village in Georgia for the fourth annual Tsinandali Festival of classical music. It’s been a difficult three years since the orchestra debuted in September 2019, given the coronavirus pandemic (which stopped it from performing at the festival for two years), as well as continuing tensions between Georgia’s neighbors Azerbaijan and Armenia, and, of course, the lingering war in nearby Ukraine.

This year, there is an urgent sense of camaraderie and hope among these young musicians and the festival organizers in this historically volatile region. Some 80 performers from seven countries from the Caucasus region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea and a few neighboring nations — Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia, Turkey and Ukraine — will play three of the 19 concerts at the festival, which runs Sept. 2-11.

“If we don’t establish a new relationship across borders with music, we are going to lose the opportunity to plant some seeds in the hearts of these young musicians,” said the Italian conductor Gianandrea Noseda, the music director of the Tsinandali Festival. “You have to start with the young people to solve problems through connections rather than divisions.”

The orchestra opens this year’s festival on Friday with “Adagio” by the Ukrainian modern composer Bohdana Frolyak (along with pieces by Brahms and Beethoven). The concert will be conducted by Oksana Lyniv, also Ukrainian, who in 2021 became the first woman to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival.

The Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra is the brainchild of Martin Engstroem, the director of the well-heeled Verbier Festival in Switzerland. In 2018 he was hired, along with Avi Shoshani, the secretary general of the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, by the private-equity investor George Ramishvili, a Georgian, to start a music festival in his home country. The festival began in September 2019 on an estate northeast of the capital of Tbilisi once owned by the 19th-century Romantic poet Prince Alexander Chavchavadze.

But Engstroem and Shoshani didn’t just want to put on another summer festival for the elite. “I felt one needed to create a festival in this part of the world with a message,” Engstroem said, something “humanitarian and geopolitical.”

Like many classical music festivals, the festival celebrates the works of major European composers — but it also includes music from the Caucasus, as well as Turkey and other countries that border the region, where tensions stretch back hundreds of years, including between Turkey and Armenia and, more recently, Azerbaijan and Armenia, as well as Russia and Georgia.

“Georgia and this region of Tsinandali are right in the center of where countries have been fighting forever,” Engstroem said.

“Now, more than, ever, a dialogue is so important. We have seen that classical music is a universal language,” he added. “It’s relatively easy for kids from different backgrounds to create a common language through music.”

For Ambartsumyan, the violinist, this year’s festival seems like a miracle. After enduring the bombardment of Kyiv earlier in the year, he remained in the city to study at the Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music this summer before traveling to Tsinandali for rehearsals. Speaking through a translator in a video interview, Ambartsumyan fought back tears as he talked about his journey in the last six months and recalled several friends killed in the war.

“Starting in February, the explosions woke me up at night, and people were running and hiding everywhere,” he said. “It was such a tough time. And these past two years have been hard because I’m both Armenian and Ukrainian.”

He was referring to the simmering clash between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh. It’s a conflict that much of the world seems to not know much — or care much — about, he said.

“In 2019 I met an Azerbaijan girl in the youth orchestra, and I remember her saying that we can communicate together, all of us, despite the tension between Armenia and Azerbaijan,” he said. “It’s important for me and other musicians to realize that peace is the most important thing in life.”

War has also touched other members of the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra.

“We were a little bit scared when the festival started in 2019 because there is always something going on or that could explode at any time,” said Diana Sargsyan, 23, an Armenian violinist. “And then Armenia and Azerbaijan fought for 44 days in 2020. I had brothers in the war, and I was always thinking about them.”

Although the orchestra didn’t reunite in 2020 and 2021 (the Tsinandali Festival continued, but on a much smaller scale), many of the young musicians stayed in touch and hoped they would play this year.

“People might wonder how we can sit next to each other, but it’s OK for us,” Sargsyan added. “The language we speak is music. It doesn’t matter which country you come from. We are all the same.”

It’s a sentiment echoed by Ekaterine Tsenteradze, 25, a Georgian oboist who remembers the brief war between her country and Russia as a child.

“I was 12 in 2008, and I remember seeing Russian soldiers in the streets,” Tsenteradze said, referring to the occupation of Georgia by Russian forces in August 2008 before a cease-fire was brokered after 12 days. “I have this fear again now. It feels like another country could be next. We’re in peace now and playing music, but it could all change.”

Ambartsumyan said he found a certain pleasure that the orchestra would play works by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, two composers who were repressed by the Soviet regime, for the festival’s closing performance on Sept. 11.

“It will be emotional for me because in their music there is a small grain of tragedy, but also underlying a lot of their music is a satire of the government,” he said. Ambartsumyan said it was an ironic bit of programming in 2022, given that music written to criticize the Russian government is being played decades later in a region where Russian aggression is once again in the headlines.

“When I saw Prokofiev and Shostakovich on the program, I thought to myself, ‘perfect!’” he said. “I know a little something about what these two composers went through.”