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Russian Maestro Brings Orchestra To Yerevan From Baku, Transcending Politics

The CIS Youth Symphony Orchestra gives a concert in Yerevan on September 24.
The CIS Youth Symphony Orchestra gives a concert in Yerevan on September 24.
YEREVAN -- Renowned Russian conductor Vladimir Spivakov has arrived in Yerevan with a group of musicians on an unprecedented direct flight from Baku after giving a concert to mark the anniversary of a prominent Azerbaijani composer.

The concert by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) Youth Symphony Orchestra was in honor of Uzeyir Hacibeyli and attended by former culture ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Russia. They gave a concert in Yerevan on September 24.

The press office of Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian said Sarkisian personally welcomed Spivakov to Yerevan and told him: "Your visits turn into big events in the cultural life of our country. Full concert halls and the warm welcomes you receive are evidence of this.. People in Armenia have great affection for you and consider you a friend of Armenia."

Cultural Diplomacy

The orchestra was formed with the support of the Council on Humanitarian Cooperation and the Interstate Foundation for Humanitarian Cooperation of CIS member countries.

The foundation's executive director is Armenia's former ambassador to Russia, Armen Smbatian, who took the post in January, after eight years in Moscow.

Smbatian, who served as Armenia's culture minister in 1996-98, was in Baku this week to hear the orchestra perform at a music festival dedicated to mark the 125th anniversary of the birth of Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hacibeyli.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev's special representative for international cultural cooperation, Mikhail Shvydkoi, also attended the concert, along with Azerbaijan's current ambassador to Russia, Polad Bulbuloglu.

At a September 23 press conference in Yerevan, Shvydkoi said the future could hold more opportunities for cooperation among musicians from the region.

"Now we are thinking about what we can do. A funny idea came up: We will try to create a Caucasus quartet with an Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Russian [musicians] in it that could play together. There are plenty of ideas and initiatives," Shvydkoi said.

"We want to introduce the Armenian-Azerbaijani component in a series of formats and events like the Baku Forum [and] the forum of translators in Yerevan. This will require the goodwill of presidents, the goodwill of the leadership."

Visiting Karabakh

The Yerevan visit wasn't the first joint trip by the three former culture ministers. Smbatian, Bulbuloglu, and Shvydkoi also visited Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia together in July 2009 as part of a Russian-backed initiative to rebuild bridges between the two estranged peoples.

During that visit they held a series of meetings with the leaders of Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, and visited Shushi, a town close to the Karabakh capital of Stepanakert, where Bulbuloglu's late father owned a house.

The town had a strategic military importance during the 1991-94 war between ethnic Armenians in Karabakh and Azerbaijan, and had a predominantly Azeri population before being captured by Karabakh forces in 1992.

In 2009, Smbatian and several other prominent Armenians joined the visiting delegation to travel to Baku, where they were received by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev.

Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a three-year war over Nagorno-Karabakh in the early 1990s after the mostly Armenian-populated region of Soviet Azerbaijan broke free of Baku's control as the Soviet Union collapsed.

A Russia-brokered cease-fire put an end to fighting in 1994 but internationally supported attempts to find a peaceful settlement have not yet found success.

As a result, visits by Armenian journalists, public figures, athletes, and government officials to neighboring Azerbaijan -- and vice versa -- have been extremely rare in the past two decades.

An exception took place in April this year when the supreme head of the Armenian Apostolic Church, Catholicos Karekin II, visited Baku to take part in a summit of world religious leaders.

'An Example To Politicians'

But Smbatian's visit to Baku and Bulbuloglu's visit to Yerevan are unique because they are the first high-level visits to take place since this summer's escalation of tensions along the line of contact between Armenian and Azerbaijani armed forces in Karabakh.

At least three major cease-fire violations in as many months have resulted in more than a dozen reported casualties on both sides. Skirmishes and sniper activity that occasionally result in losses of life continue almost on a daily basis.

It is against this fraught backdrop that Shvydkoi, Bulbuloglu, and Smbatian have arrived in Yerevan to hear classical music.

At a meeting with journalists on September 23, Spivakov said the concert in Baku was part of the CIS Youth Symphony Orchestra's practice of always performing a work by a prominent local composer in whatever country they appear in.

In Yerevan the orchestra was to perform Aleksandr Harutiunian's "Overtures," and dedicate the performance to the 90th anniversary of the Armenian composer's birth.

Spivakov, whose wife is Armenian, said he hadn't been in Baku "since the [1988 pogroms of Armenians] in Sumgait."

Shvydkoi, who advises the Russian president on cultural cooperation matters, said the orchestra served "as an example for politicians, who often cannot come to terms, to agree on different issues."

He added: "We simply wanted to show that representatives of different nationalities, cultures, and countries can create a wonderful structure that is amazing by its harmony. Now we intend to set up a quartet where either Armenian and Azerbaijani, or Georgian and Russian musicians will perform."

After the concert in Armenia, the CIS Youth Symphony Orchestra heads to Kyiv.

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