The Silk Road – and the spirit of Azerbaijan – combines with Monet’s inspirational environment


The Festival Musique de Chambre à Giverny, which takes place each year in the Normandy region of France, paid tribute to Azerbaijani classical music as a part of the main theme of its 13th edition, which was La Route de la Soie (The Silk Road).


The festival, which took place from 17−27 August, comprised 11 concerts and a conference. The French office of The European Azerbaijan Society (TEAS) supported the event.

Taking place in a range of picturesque and evocative locations, including the Musée des Impressionnismes (Museum of the Impressionists) in Giverny and the Mairie de Vernon (Vernon Town Hall), the concerts in the Silk Road strand of the festival featured original works by Azerbaijani and Eastern composers, alongside their western counterparts who were inspired by the Orient. The event saw revered contemporary Azerbaijani composer Franghiz Ali-Zadeh presenting several of her own works in a festival that also celebrated her 70th birthday. Chair of the Azerbaijani Composers’ Union for the past decade, she was inspired by the great Azerbaijani composer Kara Karayev, her lecturer at the Baku Conservatoire.


Her variations on Mugham Sayagi for string quartet opened the concert Sur les routes de la Soie (On the Silk Roads) on 18 August. Cellist Michel Strauss, Artistic Director of the Festival, prefaced the concert by saying: "Franghiz Ali-Zadeh is an extraordinary woman who has created an unique musical language, combining the traditional music of her country with the classical avant-garde. Her music forms an integral element of tonight’s musical journey.”


Franghiz Ali-Zadeh replied: "Tonight’s work – Mugham Sayagi – was a very important piece for me, having originally been played by the Kronos Quartet. It is mystical and impressionistic and contains themes from mugham, which brings together the art forms of poetry and music.”


The work was performed in a dramatic style, opening with the violinists having their back to the audience, the piece beginning with a plaintive drone, and passing through a gradual crescendo, pizzicato strings, lyrical sections, dance motifs, and the use of a gong and triangle. The performance ended with all the musicians turning their backs on the audience as they slowly walked away in ebbing silence.


According to the programme notes: "With an attitude akin to that of the giant Sergei Prokofiev, Franghiz Ali-Zadeh does not reclaim her heritage; all are stirred by her folk-like effects, mechanical motifs, lyricism and the way it develops over time; such details will change the listener.”


Following the performance and a moment of rapt silence, the audience gave a standing ovation with multiple curtain calls for Mrs Ali-Zadeh and the musicians. Comments made to Mrs Ali-Zadeh by the informed and appreciative audience included: "Formidable!”; "Incredible” and "You opened a new sound world to me.”


Also on the programme was the premiere of a string quartet transcription of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, inspired by the easterly regions of the Russian Empire (which included the current territory of the Republic of Azerbaijan) and contemporary Chinese composer Tan Dun’s Eight Colours, all of which served to illustrate a reading of explorer Marco Polo’s Book of Marvels.


Listeners the following day to the To the Heart of the 1001 Nights heard Ali-Zadeh’s Reqs, representing the various forms of Azerbaijani national dance, originally written for the Kronos Quartet. This was followed by her compatriot Fikret Amirov’s Symphony for String Quartet in memory of the poet Nizami, comprising themes from his 1947 ballet written in memory of Nizami Ganjavi, who is generally regarded as the greatest epic poet in Azerbaijani history, whose works included Leyli and Majnun (1192) and the Seven Beauties (1197).


The other works on the programme were Luciano Berio’s 1964 cycle Folk Songs, which included his evocative Azerbaijani Love Song for soprano and Maurice Ravel’s song cycle Shéhérazade, a setting of poetry for soprano, describing Central and Eastern Asia and the Muslim East. The concert was preceded by a conference on musical relationships on the Silk Road, chaired by Agathe Keller.


The centrepiece of the concert on 20 August, amidst the creative surroundings of the Musée des Impressionnismes, entitled On the Shores of the Caspian, was the world premiere of Ali-Zadeh’s Création for principal cello, flute, two violins and viola. Other works on the programme included arrangements of Alexander Borodin’s tone poem In the Steppes of Central Asia and his Polovtsian Dances from the opera Prince Igor, describing a Turkic tribe, some of whom came to live by the Caspian Sea. The programme also included a rare western performance of Soviet composer Reinhold Glière’s Overture to Shakh-Senem, composed in Azerbaijan soon after it entered the Soviet Union in 1923.


This was an evocative and remarkable festival, encompassing many composers, themes and musical traditions, the cornerstone of which was Azerbaijan, and its focal point being the work of the remarkable Franghiz Ali-Zadeh.


The other theme of the festival was Musique en Révolution (Music in Revolution) inspired by the centenary of the Bolshevik Revolution.


Located 80km from Paris, one of the most popular tourist destinations for lovers of the arts is Giverny in Normandy, for this was home to the legendary impressionist artist Claude Monet from 1883 until his death in 1926. A celebrated painter of landscapes and nature, he was a great botanist and horticulturalist, and his preserved house and landscaped garden continue to inspire generations of aficionados from around the world. In particular, he was inspired by waterlilies, his representations verging on the abstract, and the watermeadow remains a particular fascination.