BUCHAREST (Reuters) - Romania is better known for pickpockets and stray dogs than for first-rate concerts of Beethoven and Brahms, and it knows it has an image problem.
“We are the criminals and the thieves of Europe,” said Mihai Constantinescu, executive director of the Enescu Festival of music, summing up how his compatriots are often perceived.
That’s why, to the astonishment of audiences and musicians alike, one of the poorest countries in the European Union spends some 7 million euros ($10.18 million) every two years to stage one of the world’s most lavish classical music festivals.
“It’s important to bring people to let them know how it is here, because the image of Romania...is made by gypsies in Italy, by thieves in Ireland and by criminals in Belgium,” said Constantinescu, a pianist who now works in arts management.
Founded in 1958 following the death in 1955 of Romania’s most famous composer, George Enescu, the biennial festival is now an attempt to make the world see Romania in a new light.
For about four weeks in September, top artists like pianist Murray Perahia, the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the Toulouse Opera, cellist Yo Yo Ma and violinist Joshua Bell take center stage.
The concert halls of downtown Bucharest couldn’t be more packed, the music couldn’t be better, nor the audience reception warmer or more enthusiastic.
“The scale and lavishness of what’s in store is astonishing,” Ivan Hewett, who visited the festival this year, wrote in London’s Daily Telegraph, summing up what journalists from around the world had to say.
While dwarfed by the 49 million euro budget for the famous Salzburg Festival in Austria, ticket sales and sponsorships account for only 15 percent of the Enescu Festival’s budget. The Romanian government picks up the rest of the tab, Constantinescu said.
Austria is one of the EU’s wealthiest countries, with Gross Domestic Product per capita of $40,000: Romania is near the bottom, at $12,000.
“How can they afford that?” a perplexed Leif Ove Andsnes, the Norwegian pianist, told Reuters in London a few days after performing at the festival for the first time.
“I mean that country is not...” he said, his voice trailing off. “But maybe they need it as well, for a boost.”
Romania had the fastest-growing economy in the EU before the credit crunch hit. Then its economy tanked and it turned to the International Monetary Fund for some 20 billion euros in aid.
Bucharest has plush residential districts, some new, some dating from previous periods of prosperity. Modern office tower blocks have sprung up beside architectural horrors left by Romania’s hardline communist rule, which lasted half a century.
But leave the garden path of luxury shops and international hotels lining the Calea Victoriei -- where the festival takes place -- and Bucharest can descend into strips of sex shops, nightclubs, crumbling buildings and squats.
Infested for decades by stray dogs which still lurk in back alleys and parking lots, Bucharest has long outlived its reputation as “the Paris of the East” -- earned during a period of opulence in the second half of the 19th century.
Added to that are a Roma population estimated as high as 2.5 million, the biggest of any country in Europe, an unemployment rate of 7.6 percent and waves of emigrants seeking work anywhere but home.
In June, about 100 Romanians quit Northern Ireland after attacks on their homes. In Italy, mobs have razed Roma shanties -- and those are far from isolated incidents.
From government down, many people think anything that helps improve Romania’s image is money well spent.
“High-class musicians were talking about the festival as the main event of the autumn on the European music scene,” Bucharest theater director Alexandru Darie said.
“This filled my heart with patriotic pride. Finally, there was no talk of Romanian thieves, rapists and criminals, but about the organizers of a hugely prestigious festival.”
Keeping ticket prices for concerts that would cost 100 euros or more elsewhere in the 8-to-12 euro range helps ensure packed halls -- and lets Romanians mingle with visitors from across Europe, including 30 patriotic French who waved tricolor flags after a concert by French pianist Helene Grimaud.
Constantinescu sees the 4,000 or so foreigners who attend as “goodwill ambassadors” in his image-making campaign.
His goal eventually is to get people to think of Romania as part of Europe, not as somewhere “eastern.”
“We don’t want to be promoted like the east of Europe; no, it should be promoted like part of Europe,” he said.
In the process, though, he may be overlooking an opportunity. Some tourists find the blend of eastern and western cultures -- Romania is Orthodox, not Roman Catholic -- exotic.
“There are several strains of beauty here, intermixed,” said Peter Nilsson-Ehle, 65, professor of medicine at the University of Lund, Sweden, who was attending a conference and stumbled upon one of the festival’s free outdoor events by accident.
”You have the late 19th-century grandeur, the French influence interspersed with horrors from the communist era and then there is the heritage of the old churches.
“It’s very strange, but it’s more thrilling than the opposite.”
Whatever Romania’s image, Romanians’ deep appreciation of music will remain.
Helene Bucsa, 61, who works long hours as an electronics engineer, planned to spend an entire weekend attending as many as three concerts a night, at prices she could afford.
“I am tired after working all week but I am going to three concerts today and all through the weekend because for me, this music is like balsam,” she said.
Writing by Michael Roddy; editing by Sara Ledwith