September 22, 2015 / 3:46 PM / 2 years ago

Romanian music festival thrives despite local turbulence

BUCHAREST (Reuters) - One of Eastern Europe’s biggest classical music festivals draws bigger and bigger stars every year though its main hall is an acoustic disaster from communist times and the local government of host city Bucharest is in turmoil.

The 22nd edition of the George Enescu Festival, which ended this past weekend, boasted appearances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Dresden Staatskapelle, the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony Orchestra and, after 15 years of negotiations, the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle.

The 2017 edition will see Milan’s La Scala, conductors Valery Gergiev and Antonio Pappano, as well as the superstar Chinese pianist Lang Lang, among others.

“You have the most beautiful festival and the greatest public in the world,” Indian-born maestro Zubin Mehta told reporters a day after he conducted the Israel Philharmonic.

“Every musician on stage is happy to see the smiling faces of the Romanian public, so we can’t wait to come back.”

A notable triumph of the Enescu festival, which is named for Romania’s most famous composer, George Enescu, and was founded in 1958, is not only that it survived during the repressive communist rule of Nicolae Ceausescu, but that it seems to float above the corruption scandals of modern-day Romania.

Halfway through the three-week-long festival, anti-corruption prosecutors arrested Bucharest Mayor Sorin Oprescu, pending a criminal investigation on suspicion he awarded public contracts in exchange for bribes.

There was no immediate impact on the festival, but the city is among its biggest patrons. The bulk of the festival’s budget of 8 million euros ($8.93 million) comes from the Romanian central government through the culture ministry, which has a high turnover of ministers.

“I am the 13th culture minister since 2003,” Culture Minister Ionut Vulpescu told a conference. “I am absolutely convinced the festival will carry on at the standard of the latest editions.”

Romania’s ever-changing political landscape means, though, that the festival organisers must fight hard to obtain funds for operational costs, and must make do with outdated facilities.

Successive governments have never made good on vague promises to replace the main 4,000-seat Sala Palatului hall, which was built in 1960 for communist party meetings and has poor acoustics.

“I am sorry to say goodbye to you in this hall of party congresses,” Ioan Holender, the festival’s outgoing honorary chairman and artistic director for the past 14 years, told the audience before the Berlin Philharmonic performed there.

Mehta is to replace Holender as honorary chairman while the London Philharmonic Orchestra’s lead conductor Vladimir Jurowski is rumoured to become the new artistic director, although the ministry has yet to announce it.

None of the turmoil seemed to faze Rattle, and the Berlin Philharmonic is set to return to the festival in 2019.

“The Enescu Festival has an incredible record in supporting and encouraging music, whatever is going on in the world outside,” he said.

Reporting by Luiza Ilie; Editing by Michael Roddy/Mark Heinrich

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