Inside the remarkable music festival where Russians and Ukrainians play together

The streets of Tbilisi, Georgia’s vibrant capital, may be full of anti-Russian manifestations – sweary graffiti on walls, Ukrainian flags in windows – but up in the eastern wine country they do things more gently. At least in Tsinandali they do. In sight of the wild Caucasus Mountains, best known as a conflict-ridden region, an oasis-like old wine estate has become home to a remarkable music festival, one of whose aims is to ease geopolitical tensions by bringing people together. “Seeing a musician from Turkey next to one from Armenia sends a message of universal brotherhood,” says Avi Shoshani, one of the founding artistic directors of the Tsinandali Festival.

Established as the centrepiece and raison d’être of the Tsinandali Festival, the Pan-Caucasian Youth Orchestra opened the 2022 edition under the Ukrainian conductor Oksana Lyniv (wearing her trademark sash in Ukrainian colours) and gave the premiere of a new work by the Ukrainian composer Bohdana Frolyak. The festival’s logo went blue and yellow this year, too, but otherwise it was a case of soft diplomacy. After all, there are other tensions in the region between some of the countries whose young musicians gathered here.

Players representing Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Ukraine have been working together and living under the same roof in Tsinandali since rehearsals began in mid August, with coaching from some of the world’s top orchestral personalities. It’s said that musicians from Turkmenistan will join next year. Meanwhile – and whisper it unofficially – there were also a few Russians in the orchestra, on the basis that in order to have dialogue between opposing sides you need people from opposing countries.

Tellingly enough, when the PCYO was founded in 2019, players’ nationalities were printed next to their names in the programme, but not now. One of those unafraid to reveal her background is the violinist Sultana Altynbekova from Kazakhstan: “I can’t judge anyone’s countries, but there is an incredible feeling here. All of us come from different countries, but we have so much in common.”

The obvious parallel is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, set up by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said with musicians from the Middle East to promote mutual understanding. As the veteran secretary general of the Israel Philharmonic and a former classmate of Barenboim’s, Shoshani certainly acknowledges the connection and adds only half-jokingly, “With the PCYO we can show the world that the Middle East isn’t the only trouble spot.”

Though the Divan and PCYO may share a formula, auditioning in all their constituent countries, the real inspiration for this Georgia-based youth orchestra comes from the Verbier Festival Orchestra, similarly drawn from players aged 18 to 28. That’s because as co-founding artistic directors, Shoshani and Martin Engstroem — two of classical music’s biggest movers and shakers — also jointly masterminded Verbier, and Engstroem stresses the educational benefits of mixing big names with rising stars and of offering masterclasses to expose local talent to the outside world.

But the initial inspiration came from one of Georgia’s most successful businessmen, George Ramishvili, who as chairman of the investment group company Silk Road had in 2005 begun reviving the Tsinandali estate, left in ruins after the collapse of the USSR. First to be restored was the summer house of the 19th-century Romantic poet Prince Alexander Chavchavadze, a destination then for such great culture figures as Alexander Pushkin and Alexandre Dumas. Getting culture back there became Ramishvili’s mission, and building a team with David Sakvarelidze, formerly boss of the Opera House in Tbilisi and now the festival’s general director, they courted Shoshani and the Israel Philharmonic during a visit of that orchestra to Yerevan in neighbouring Armenia. In 2018 the Israel Phil gave an inaugural concert at Tsinandali, and when Shoshani calls Ramishvili “a dreamer, but one who knows how to make things happen”, he means that in the intervening year a luxury hotel was built and also a specially designed hotel for the young artists — possibly the only hotel in the world with practice studios.

This year’s edition was the festival’s fourth, though only the second with the PCYO due to the pandemic disruption. In 2020, which also saw Armenia and Azerbaijan fight a six-week war, the event became a chamber music festival (featuring Martha Argerich, no less), while last year’s travel restrictions meant using the Georgian Philharmonic Orchestra. So the PCYO players have been eager to return: the Ukrainian violinist Yuliya Ostapchuk calls it “More important than ever. People come from different countries, where we’ve learnt music in different ways, but we learn from each other and learn to be flexible.”

Currently doing postgraduate studies at London’s Royal College of Music, Ostapchuk has not been home to Lviv this year, and was especially proud to be playing under the baton of a Ukrainian conductor. “We’re showing what people from Ukraine are made of!” The Georgian viola player Saba Kutsishvili feels that the orchestra has both political and musical meaning. “We try not to talk about politics too much by focusing on music, and working hard with great musicians, but I’ve made lots of new friends.” And though the Kazakh violinist Altynbekova acknowledges the political importance, she sees the festival first as “a great opportunity for us to work with inspiring musicians”.

Proof of this came in the festival’s opening concert, where especially in Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony the musicians performed as if their lives depended on it. In Frolyak’s lush new Adagio and Brahms’s mighty First Piano Concerto, played with uncommon freshness and flexibility by the rising Japanese star pianist Mao Fujita, the acoustics of the main outdoor (though roof-covered) amphitheatre added to the experience — natural sound enhancement provided by old wine cellars behind and beneath the auditorium. As Lyniv said after conducting the concert, “Georgia is a great friend of Ukraine. I can’t think of anything better for the future than to bring young people together here.”