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Stirring movements from the Land of Fire

Azerbaijan is a hidden gem of Europe’s classical repertoire and the confluence of Eastern and Western traditions, writes cellist and conductor Dmitry Yablonsky

Hear the stirring opening of Uzeyir Hajibeyov’s Sensiz and you will be transported into the mystical past of the Silk Road. Azerbaijan, wedged between the Caspian Sea and the mountains of the Greater Caucasus, was a vital staging post between East and West, with ancient cities like Qabala widely acknowledged as the mid-point of the 2,500-year-old trading route. The confluence of cultures that make up Azerbaijan is most evident in its rich tradition of classical music.

Hajibeyov remains the country’s most famous composer, penning the national anthem March of Azerbaijan. Hajibeyov’s career reflects the tumultuous changes Azerbaijan faced in the 20th century, and his life was quite literally saved by his music. His opera Koroghlu received its Moscow premiere in 1938 with Joseph Stalin in attendance. Hajibeyov had been under suspicion from Soviet authorities because of his association with Azerbaijan’s independence movement and short-lived democratic republic from 1918 to 1920, as well as his composition of its then-national anthem. But so taken was Stalin with the libretto based on episodes from the Epic of Koroghlu, a heroic story from Turkic oral traditions, that all was forgiven and Hajibeyov awarded with the title of People’s Artist of the USSR, the Order of Lenin and the Stalin Prize.

Azerbaijan’s rich culture of classical music emerged with operas and ballets in the cultural heyday of imperial Russia and the Soviet era, when musicians got first-hand exposure to European musical traditions. It also experienced a revival in the 1920s with the establishment of Baku’s Academy of Music.

One of Azerbaijan’s national heroes, Bülbül, was a famous opera tenor and folk musician who established the vocal arts and the national musical theatre. Bülbül was born in the village of Khanbaghi in the South Caucasus, and tributes to him are paid through statues and plaques across Baku, the city he came to call home. Bülbül (Nightingale in Azerbaijani) moved to the city in 1920 to perform in Asli and Karam, another of Hajibeyov’s operas. Bülbül’s story reminds us of Azerbajian’s geo-cultural importance between Western Asia and Europe.

This tradition continues to this day with the Gabala International Music Festival, which saw its tenth edition in 2018. Globally renowned conductors, performers and bands from Russia, the US, Switzerland, Austria, Cuba, Hungary, Turkey, Spain, Italy and Georgia took part in a programme dedicated to the 100th anniversary of Gara Garayev’s birth – another great Azerbaijani composer – with the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra closing the final night.

For local audiences, the enthralling experience is made possible by an accessible – and free – programme that includes European staples of Chopin, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninoff and Ravel. But alongside these eminent names are distinguished composers from the Caucasus as well as a now-regular fixture of mugham, the traditional folk music of Azerbaijan.

I was born in Moscow, trained at the Juilliard School in New York and worked all over the world. But I am now based in Baku much of the time because it’s such an exciting place for a classical musician to work. I am proud to serve as artistic director of the Gabala International Music Festival ​​alongside Farhad Badalbeyli, Professor and Rector of Baku Music Academy.

There is a new generation of cultural entrepreneurs who are putting Azerbaijan on the map. For instance, Tale Heydarov, a businessman and philanthropist, has been working to promote Azerbaijani culture, literature and music in Europe for over a decade. Through his support I recently recorded and released through NAXOS the Seven Beauties Ballet and Path of Thunder suites by Baku-born composer Gara Garayev.

‘As a musical art form, it is a union of two great cultures where East meets West, and a great example of intercultural dialogue,’ Tale recently said in an interview, and I could not agree more. The Seven Beauties is one of the earliest full-length Azerbaijani ballets and in it Garayev – one of Dmitry Shostakovich’s most distinguished pupils – blends Azerbaijani folk melodies and harmonies with elements of African and Afro-American music to create exotic rhythms.

Through classical music and Baku’s emerging jazz scene, Azerbaijan is quickly building its reputation as a global hub for music. Musical projects like Yo Yo Ma’s Silk Road – which features contemporary and ancient compositions from drawn from around the world – show just how prominently Azerbaijan figures in the global musical imagination.

Just last month, Ma’s Silkroad Ensemble joined the Mark Morris Dance Group to perform a special version of Hajibeyov’s opera Leyli and Majnun at Sadler’s Wells, which featured world-renowned Azerbaijani singer Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana. Hajibeyov’s work is largely regarded as the first opera to be composed in the East.

Baku was the host city for the 2012 Eurovision, and every year is home to the International Jazz Festival, which recently celebrated its 18th edition. The Zhara festival, another highlight of Baku’s summer events, is one of the biggest in the CIS countries. And through the support of philanthropic organisations like the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, there is a strong support network for emerging talent across many modern genres of music.

In the Land of Fire – as Azerbaijan is known – classical music burns brighter than ever.

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