Yuri Bashmet: Turning Sochi into a cultural capital

As the 10th Winter International Arts Festival continues on the coast of Russia’s Black Sea, Yuri Bashmet, the festival’s artistic director and a prominent violist, discusses his favorite concert hall and why he chose Sochi to host the festival.

This is already the 10th year that Russia’s southern city of Sochi has hosted the Winter International Arts Festival. The festival was conceived of and organized by legendary conductor and violist Yuri Bashmet long before the city won its bid to host the 2014 Olympics. Sochi’s mayor, Anatoly Pakhomov, is endlessly grateful to Bashmet, who he says “has revived the city after its long hibernation during the winter period and started Sochi’s cultural Olympics.”

This year, the festival’s program includes both highlight performances from the past decade and also premiers from different genres, ranging from classic symphony music to jazz and rock, with concerts taking place both in Sochi and, for the first time, in a new concert hall in the mountainous ski resort town of Roza Khutor.

Performers include internationally acclaimed musicians such as Italian violinist Massimo Quarta, Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen, Japanese bassoonist Rie Koyama, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, as well as stars such as the “Moscow Soloists” Chamber Orchestra, the New Russia State Symphony Orchestra and pianist Denis Matsuev.

RBTH: Why did you choose Sochi to hold your festival instead of Moscow or some other city?

Yuri Bashmet: It didn’t happen on purpose. We had just had a big tour around many countries, and one of the concerts was in Sochi. After the performance, the city’s administration approached me and said the concert was a big success and wondered if I could give more than one concert next time. So the next year, we held three concerts, and this was also a success. So we started to make the festival bigger and bigger.

RBTH: Is this festival meant to be for people from Sochi or also for an international audience?

Y.B.: There are people who come specifically for the festival from Siberia and Vladivostok, and of course it’s getting more and more of an international audience. I don’t know yet who came this year, but in previous years there were people from Switzerland, Great Britain and many other countries.

RBTH: Do you think that someday Sochi could become a kind of Saltsburg of Russia?

Y.B.: Saltsburg is a beautiful town, but many people know it because of Mozart, and Genoa because of Paganini. In Russia, we have big names such as Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov, so we do some festivals outside Moscow, for example in Tchaikovsky’s house [in the town of Klin, 97 km north of Moscow], but these can’t be so international. And it costs a huge amount of money to put on festivals like that in Sochi. So we won’t be a new Saltsburg, but we will continue to grow, and it will have the same level of recognition within several years.

RBTH: What are artistic statements you want to make with this year’s festival? Did you put together the entire program? What were the main ideas behind it?

Y.B.: Yes, it was my program. First, we can’t just call 10 concerts in 10 days a festival. It must always have a face and idea. We are a cultural festival, and we make a lot of difference. I had the idea to combine many genres so that it was a new type of performance. For example, not everyone can sit and listen to a whole opera from beginning to end.

So this is what gave birth to our production of Eugene Onegin. It’s a brilliant poem written by Pushkin, and so very good and talented actors read the original text for three to four minutes so that people could understand who is who, who killed whom and what happened in general. And then they listen to arias from the original opera, so it was made easier to listen to, and the performance became much shorter. With Carmen, I wanted more, and so we combined opera, dramatic art and ballet.

So the festival is about combining completely different genres. We have also jazz, because I love jazz, and also rock, because I was a rock musician myself.

Did you see the Grammy Awards? When Placido Domingo wins, he is a representative of one type of audience. People who listen more to classical music are not going to admire Sting, and yet he also wins the awards. Because millions of people listen to pop music.

So what we have here is one rock concert, but it’s mostly classical music and dramatic art in combination with classics.

RBTH: What things inspire you besides music?

Y.B.: Many things: nature, beauty. Really life is the best book. If you look around and pay attention, you can learn a lot from life. Sometimes we just go through life on autopilot and don’t see the things around us. But when my eyes are open, I feel happy.

RBTH: We are in a place with a mix of different cultures and traditions since Sochi is just across the border from Abkhazia, and in general there are many different nations in the Black Sea coastal area. Do you try to reflect this diversity somehow in your festival?

Y.B.: You know, many years ago when I was in Japan for the first time, I was shocked! In different places there, you can hear Mozart and a lot of Tchaikovsky all the time. And I played the Japanese audiences the music of a Chinese composer, Tan Dun, and they were not against this. Here in Sochi, there are many nationalities: Armenians, Georgians, Ossetians. They have a culture at home, but here they are among the audience, and so these things don’t matter. What unites people is laughter and hatred. Classical music is generally about people.

You know, in Europe when you tour Germany, when you move closer to France from town to town, the names of towns become more and more German, and then in France but closer to Italy—more Italian. So these borders are only on paper.

RBTH: You are holding concerts all around the world. Can you remember which concert hall you liked the most, which one is your favorite?

Y.B.: I can’t say for sure because what is a favorite concert hall? First of all, it’s a concert hall with good acoustics and a nice cozy atmosphere on the stage. By the way, the stage shouldn’t be too high because that makes an artist nervous. It’s also about the traditions living on in our memory. Of course, you are nervous when you show up to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York, for example. But I am less nervous then the violinists, who know that this is a place where [famous American violinists] Jascha Heifetz and Isaac Stern played. Or pianists, who know that Arthur Rubinstein played here. I can imagine what Richter [Sviatoslav Richter, one of the greatest piano virtuosos of the 20th century] felt coming to the U.S. for the first time and performing in Carnegie Hall.

I have another layer of responsibility — a responsibility before myself that makes me even more nervous. I played the first ever viola solo concert at the Moscow Conservatory. I prepared a lot, and I was allowed to play it in the end despite initially being told that the viola is not an instrument for solos. I worried that no one would come to the concert. But finally it was a great concert, and I played another one a year later, and another two years after that.