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14 December 2018

New music adventures in Russia, Central Asia and Indochina

Andrián Pertout with Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, Vietnam's Acting President Image: Andrián Pertout with Dang Thi Ngoc Thinh, Vietnam's Acting President  
© Katija Farac-Pertout

Andrián Pertout writes about his recent travels to Russia, Uzbekistan and Vietnam, as an invited guest of three different composer and music societies. Slightly overwhelmed by the attention - including police escorts and welcome ceremonies featuring horns and drums and girls handing out flowers - he attended performances of his music, delivered a paper and, when asked, gave spontatenous speeches in praise of hosts and wrote a letter to a president. He also visited a Tashkent metro station of personal significance, and bumped into Barry Conyngham in a food hall on Nevsky Prospect!

In June of this year I received an invitation by Rashid Kalimullin (Chairman of the Union of Composers of Russia and Union of Composers of Tatarstan) to attend a concert series around the middle of November in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, Russia. This was followed by an additional invitation by Rustam Abdullaev (Chairman of the Union of Composers and Bastakors of Uzbekistan) to attend an international festival of Symphonic Music in Tashkent, Uzbekistan around that same time. At this juncture you could assume that no more opportunities could possibly present themselves for the same month, until I received a further invitation by Hong Quan Do (Chairman of the Vietnamese Musicians' Association) to attend the 3rd 'Asia-Europe' New Music Festival in Hanoi, Vietnam. The final part of the itinerary would not have been possible but for Hong Quan Do's adjustment of the festival dates upon hearing that I could not attend due to a clash with my commitments at the Saint-Petersburg International Cultural Forum. As it turned out, Do - a graduate of the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory and a devoted Russophile - was able to join me. Together with Rashid Kalimullin, we would go on our Uzbekistan-Russia-Vietnam adventure together and a tour to three distinct locations, ideologically connected as traditional allies via strong socio-political links.

Central Asia encompasses a land mass of four million square kilometres (with the Caspian Sea to the west, China to the east, Afghanistan to the south, and Russia to the north), incorporating the five former Soviet republics of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, and a total population of 69 million people. This geographical region is at the heart of the historical 'Silk Road' - a network of trade routes connecting the West with the East for over 2000 years. In Uzbekistan alone there are five UNESCO World Heritage sites, which include the Historic Centre of Bukhara, Historic Centre of Shakhrisyabz, Itchan Kala (Khiva), Samarkand (Crossroads of Cultures), and Western Tien-Shan.

In a 1991 referendum, Uzbekistan declared independence from the Soviet Union (having been under the Russian Empire's control since 1865), but Tashkent, the capital and Uzbekistan's most cosmopolitan city, retains stylistic characteristics of the USSR, with its Soviet redevelopment following the 1966 earthquake that devastated most of the city's architectural heritage. With regards to its economy, Uzbekistan has the fourth-largest gold deposits in the world, and significant untapped reserves of oil and gas.

The International Festival of Symphonic Music in Tashkent was the fifth instalment of a festival that had actually not taken place since the last event in 2005, but that is now expected to become an ongoing biennial new music festival. Featured in the opening concert at the Grand Hall of the State Conservatory of Uzbekistan was orchestral music from Uzbekistan, Russia, Vietnam, Kyrgyzstan, and Australia. My selected work was Entropia (2016-17) for symphony orchestra, commissioned by the 14th 'Europe-Asia' International Festival of New Music in Kazan, Tatarstan, with funds provided by the Australia Council for the Arts. The work received its world premiere in September 2017 at the Saydashev Grand Concert Hall in Kazan by the Tatarstan National Symphony Orchestra - today most Australians have of course heard of Kazan, as this was the home of the Socceroos during the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.

Entropia serves as 'Hommage à Peter Sculthorpe' (1929-2014), and was finalist in the Orchestral Work of the Year category of the 2018 APRA AMCOS/AMC Art Music Awards. The Asian premiere was performed by the Uzbekistan National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the extremely charismatic conductor-percussionist Alibek Kabdurakhmanov. If one were to try to describe the general aesthetic of the music in this region (as featured in this festival) one would utilise language such as grandiloquent, dramatic, and grandiose to describe a post-Stalin Russian musicality, with immense gestures and wide delineation.

To say that my experience in Uzbekistan was 'over the top' would be an understatement. The final day of the symphonic festival included a trip to the ancient capital of Central Asia, Samarkand (one of the oldest cities in the region), about 300 kilometres from Tashkent. Although the trip may be done via high-speed train, we travelled by bus with a police escort. By now accustomed to Uzbek etiquette, I was not at all surprised to see my photo displayed on the front window of the bus.

According to UNESCO, the historic town of Samarkand is 'a crossroad and melting pot of the world's cultures, and illustrates in its art, architecture, and urban structure the most important stages of Central Asian cultural and political history from the 13th century to the present day'. We were greeted at the Samarkand College of Music and Art with great enthusiasm. Not only did we receive the customary traditional celebratory welcome complete with Karnays (two-meter brass natural horns), Surnays (double-reed conical oboes or shawms), Doyras (Uzbek frame drums), and Nogoras (Uzbek pot-shaped drums), but were also obliged to walk along a red carpet with adolescent Uzbek girls at either side handing out flowers; and as we entered the hall, the crowd cheering us on.

We were treated to some traditional Uzbek music, but in no time at all I was being asked (via my Uzbek translator Mirzokhid Abdurakhmonov) to deliver a speech in praise of the Uzbek people on behalf of Australia. The Uzbek protocol is elaborate and formal, but on many occasions one was asked to perform tasks in spontaneous fashion. Such as the day when I was quietly digesting my lunch, only to be suddenly ushered into a room and asked to generate a hand-written letter to the president that would be published the next day, in Uzbek, in the national newspaper. I should add that representatives of every single media in the country were present at all times. There were no less than a dozen cameras at every event, filming every single moment. I personally took part in five television interviews that week.

We were also accorded with four translators (students from the Uzbek State World Languages University), fluent in both Russian and Uzbek, who attended every single event; sitting next to one of us, and therefore allowing us to participate in all forms of dialogue - from general conversations over lunch and dinner to more formal settings. The closure of the festival was celebrated with flowers, a diploma and more gifts (a moment robustly embellished with a triumphant soundtrack); certainly star treatment that I have not experienced on this level of intensity ever before.

Prior to my visit, I'd been asked to submit an article for publication as part of the Conservatory's musicological conference. I accepted, and wrote, and later presented, my article focusing on Entropia. I was rewarded for my efforts with not only an exquisite lunch and diploma of participation, but also with a copy of an impressive 422-page multilingual book containing my article.

Whilst in Uzbekistan, I also made time to visit the Tashkent Metro (the seventh metro built in the former USSR - 'its stations among the most ornate in the world'), with particular attention to the space-program-themed 'Kosmonavtlar' metro station on the O'zbekiston Line, which features not only Soviet pilot and cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first human to journey into outer space), but also my heroine, Valentina Tereschkova, the first woman in space. The significance of this metro station to me personally is the fact that I was named after Valentina Tereschkova's husband, the Soviet cosmonaut Andriyan Nikolayev. My father was an ardent Russophile, and had things turned out differently (if my family had immigrated to Russia instead of Northern Italy in 1971), I might today be a 'Russian' composer.

On Sunday 11 November I then travelled to Moscow, Russia to attend a concerts series 'The Music of the Three Continents', organised by the Union of Russian Composers. The concerts were organised at the Sergei Prokofiev Museum in Moscow and the Elena Obraztsova Cultural Center - the former home of famous Russian mezzo-soprano, and People's Artist of the USSR - in Saint Petersburg. Several movements from my monumental 70-minute piano work Luz meridional, Twenty-four Études for Pianoforte, no. 411 (2009-2012) were performed by Japanese pianist Sayaka Takahashi, a Moscow resident for over a decade now. In 1928 Henry Cowell (1897-1965) became the first American composer to be invited to the Soviet Union at the invitation of the very same Union of Composers of the Russian Federation, to perform some of his piano works at the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory, to great acclaim. 90 years on, I was here, invited by the same union of composers - with Dmitri Shostakovich amongst past presidents in 1960-68 - to be present at the European premiere of Luz meridional, written in homage of Henry Cowell! Luz meridional, or 'Southern Light', was commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC and especially composed for Australian pianist Michael Kieran Harvey as part of a 2009 State Library of Victoria Creative Fellowship. Each individual movement pays homage to one of twenty-four early Australian composers, and the work as a whole represents a 'Homenaje a Henry Cowell' (1897-1965). This work was recognised, in 2012, with the prestigious Jean Bogan Prize by the University of Newcastle, Australia.

In Moscow I visited the famous House of Composers, also known as 'the Building with 100 Pianos' - a multi-storey structure situated in the historical centre of Moscow, near to the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, Red Square, and the Kremlin. This was the home to Borisovich Kabalevsky (1904-1987), Dmitri Dmitriyevich Shostakovich (1906-1975), Aram Il'yich Khachaturian (1903-1978), Mstislav Leopoldovich Rostropovich (1927-2007), and many others. This is also the home of the Union of Composers of Russia (Dmitri Shostakovich's piano still there), and what used to be the residential restaurant is today a prominent concert hall.

The Saint Petersburg concert was presented within the framework of the VII Saint Petersburg International Cultural Forum (15-17 November), and because the event is 'a discussion platform attracting several thousand cultural experts from all over the world: the stars of the drama theatre, opera and ballet, outstanding directors and musicians, public figures, representatives of government and business, academic community', it is no surprise that I had an accidental encounter with Barry Conyngham at the Kupetz Eliseevs Food Hall (one of the world's oldest and most famous shops) on Nevsky Prospect. In view of this fact, on Saturday, 17 November I attended the Russian premiere of Conyngham's Gardener of Time for symphony orchestra (2010) performed by the Saint Petersburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sergei Stadler at the Assembly Hall, of the Saint Petersburg State University.

From Saint Petersburg I travelled to Hanoi, Vietnam, to attend the world premiere performance of Atoms of Silence (2017-2018) for symphony orchestra by the Sun Symphony Orchestra (SSO) conducted by French conductor Olivier Ochanine, as part of the 3rd 'Asia-Europe' New Music Festival (24-28 November 2018). The work was again commissioned by Julian Burnside AO QC, and dedicated to American astronomer, cosmologist, astrophysicist, astrobiologist, and author Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996). The newly-founded Sun Symphony Orchestra is sponsored by one of Vietnam's leading real estate developers, Sun Group, and consists of musicians from all over the world. As part of SSO's plan to develop as an international-standard orchestra, the board of directors will now commission Italian architect Renzo Piano to build a new opera house near West Lake to serve as a home for the orchestra (Piano's architectural credits so far include the Georges Pompidou Centre in Paris, the Shard in London, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Auditorium Niccolo Paganini in Parma, and the Auditorium Parco della Musica in Rome).

My first visit to Vietnam was in 2014, as part of my attendance of the 1st Asia-Europe New Music Festival, which represented the first 'Asian' instalment of the prestigious biennial music festival founded by the Ministry of Culture, Union of Composers of Russia and Union of Composers of Tatarstan back in 1993. On that particular occasion the Vietnam National Symphony Orchestra (VNSO), under the fine direction of Japanese conductor Honna Tetsuji, had performed my work L'assaut sur la raison (2003) for symphony orchestra. I also took part in a tea ceremony with president Trương Tấn Sang, who recently passed away in September at the age of 61.

In 2016, the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet Choir and the VNSO performed my tribute to Arvo Pärt Angustam Amice (2014-15) for SATB choir and string orchestra as part of the 34th Asian Composers League Festival and Conference (and the 2nd 'Asia-Europe' New Music Festival) in Vietnam. Among the many highlights of this third visit to Vietnam was a trip (organised by the festival on the day following the closing ceremony) to the beautiful and picturesque Hoa Lư in Ninh Bình Province (the capital of Vietnam in the 10th and 11th centuries, and situated in the Red River Delta region of Vietnam). I also delivered a speech (on behalf of the Australian people) at the Presidential Palace in Hanoi in the presence of Acting President of Vietnam Đặng Thị Ngọc Thịnh (the country's first female head of state). And being my third visit to Vietnam, I was now well accustomed to having my photograph (together with other participants in the festival) plastered on both the walls of the Vietnam National Academy of Music and Hanoi Opera House.

Further links

Andrian Pertout - AMC profile

Union of Composers and Bastakors of Uzbekistan (http://www.commus.uz/index.php/en/)

The Uzbekistan National Symphony Orchestra (http://orkestr.uz/en/natsionalnyj-simfonicheskij-orkestr-uzbekistana/)

The State Conservatory of Uzbekistan (SCUz) (http://konservatoriya.uz)

The Union of Composers of Russia (http://unioncomposers.ru/)

The Sergei Prokofiev Museum, Moscow, Russia (https://www.moscovery.com/sergei-prokofiev-museum/)

Elena Obraztsova Cultural Center, St Petersburg, Russia (https://www.obraztsova.org)

Sun Symphony Orchestra (SSO) (http://sunsymphony.vn)

Vietnam National Academy of Music (http://www.vnam.edu.vn)

Andrián Pertout: 2018 Speech at the Presidential Palace of Vietnam (YouTube)

Andrián Pertout is a freelance composer. His music has been performed in over 40 countries around the world. He was Honorary Fellow at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, University of Melbourne in 2007-2015 and is currently President of the Melbourne Composers’ League (MCL), Australian delegate of the Asian Composers’ League (ACL); and Lecturer in Composition at the Faculty of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne.



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Comparing Cultural Deserts

Reading about Andrian's experiences being personally feted, his music celebrated revealed the extraordinary lengths his hosts went to ensure that due recognition was given to our representative of new music from Down Under.

As the chief delegate representing Australian composers in his role as President of the Melbourne Composer's League at the Asian Pacific Music Festivals over many years, Andrian has the personal capacities of warmth and savoir faire to make many excellent connections.  He also writes compelling and interesting music with great dedication for many important events.

Is it ever possible that these honours bestowed overseas on a living Australian composer could ever be replicated here in Australia?  Wouldn't that make a change from the political machinations of our electoral process, to have a bus with photos of one or more of our composers.

Imagine that, perhaps Andrian, perhaps Elena Kats-Chernin, perhaps Cat Hope, perhaps many of the other hardworking outstanding and new composers, tour around the country, with full media flock in tow, to a series of concerts and celebratory occasions.  Wouldn't that help everyone feel that art was valued in Australia as much as house prices?

Comparing Cultural Deserts

Love the sentiment.  Love the dream.  Thank you CS.