Azerbaijan-Israel cultural partnership comes alive

The X Gabala International Music Festival reflects coexistence, harmony of peoples, cultures, religions and music.

Flag of Azerbaijan (photo credit: REUTERS)
Flag of Azerbaijan
(photo credit: REUTERS)
A few days ago, I was sitting in the magnificent and beautiful city of Gabala, listening with my Israeli friends to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 4 for piano and orchestra performed by the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra. Once again, I thought the Republic of Azerbaijan – this remarkable, prestigious and hospitable country of the South Caucasus, and Israel’s strategic partner in Eurasia – has become the center of attraction for excellent musicians, a real platform for friendship, cooperation, partnership, tolerance and true multiculturalism. I am proud that the famous orchestra participated at the X Gabala International Festival. 
The Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which celebrates its 80th anniversary this season, was founded as the Palestine Broadcasting Service Orchestra in the late 1930s. In 1948, it became the National Radio Orchestra and was known as the “Kol Israel Orchestra.” In the 1970s, the orchestra was expanded into the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
The 10th International Music Festival in early August was held with the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and organized by Azerbaijan’s Culture and Tourism Ministry. The 10-day festival included a young pianist competition, classical music nights and a mugham concert of traditional folk music.
Azerbaijan’s First Vice-President Mehriban Aliyeva said in a congratulatory letter to the participants of the X Gabala International Music Festival that the Azerbaijani people have always cherished their culture, language, literature, poetry and music, elements that have preserved the spirit of our nation through the centuries.
“The 10th anniversary edition of this splendid celebration of music held in Gabala coincides with a particularly special occasion for our country: the Centenary of the Azerbaijani Democratic Republic, the first parliamentary republic in the Muslim East. Azerbaijan created the first opera, first ballet and first conservatory. (The Baku Academy of Music is a source of pride for every Azerbaijani citizen).
We have always sought to preserve, nurture and promote the unique pearls of our national music heritage around the world. At the same time, as a country that has contributed to the development of dialogue between civilizations across the centuries, we attach particular importance to the realization of projects that facilitate the cultural and intellectual interaction of peoples. We see the festival as a highly important means of mutually enriching the music cultures of diverse nations, and of further boosting friendly relations between them,” said Aliyeva.
The Gabala International Music Festival is a wonderful initiative of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation, world-famous conductor and cellist Dmitry Yablonsky, one of the festival’s artistic directors, told me during an exclusive interview. “This event is one of the best for high level of organization among the music festivals held worldwide. During the festival, which is traditionally held every year, the world’s most famous music bands, chamber and symphonic orchestras, world-renowned performers and conductors come together to showcase their skills,” he said.
YABLONSKY HAILED the friendly relations between Azerbaijan and Israel in the field of culture and art. “Azerbaijan is also the home to several other ethnic and religious groups, including ancient Zoroastrian, Christian and Jewish communities. The Jewish people have never experienced any discrimination, harassment, insults, pogroms or any antisemitic actions in Azerbaijan. The State of Israel has repeatedly expressed its appreciation for the warm and unique attitude of President Ilham Aliyev toward the Jewish community,” Yablonsky added.
Jerusalem Symphonic Orchestra general director Yair Shtern said, “Azerbaijani-Israeli relations are a positive, strategic partnership. Azerbaijan is a true model of inter-civilizational and interfaith dialogue. Tolerance and multiculturalism are key foundations of the Azerbaijani society. Azerbaijan has made a concerted effort to create and foster the necessary political and social conditions for developing and strengthening the country’s traditions of multiculturalism and tolerance.”
The festival became an act of spiritual unity, and not only for foreign guests and Gabala residents. The goal of such forums is to expand the borders for contact between people of good will. As experience shows, such events more than justify themselves. First, music, like any other form of art, knows no borders or nationalities. It can speak to people better than any diplomat, in a language that is understood by all hearts and unites them, bypassing the divisive conventions invented by mankind in the form of strictly outlined geographical and territorial borders. Second, the music culture of Azerbaijan is becoming the property of the world. The best of the best included works by Azerbaijani composers in their programs.
What makes Gabala’s festival special, if not unique, is that the concerts are free. Music-lovers gathered early every evening outside the chamber music hall in order to get a good seat. It was always a full house. Later, the crowd moved to the outdoor stage for a much bigger open-air concert. Seating was provided at ground level and on a raised platform. These concerts were exceptionally popular. In fact, so many people attended that festival organizers had to bring in truckloads of extra chairs on several occasions and set them up on the grassy slope overlooking the stage. There was a real feeling of excitement in the crowd before each concert and very appreciative ovations as each ended.
Seemingly endless warm and sunny days, long balmy evenings and moonlit nights greeted many of the world’s top musicians. This is the Gabala Music Festival, set in a steep tree-lined valley directly beneath the Caucasus Mountains. The festival at once captivates, impresses, and leaves a long-lasting memory of beauty and musical excellence.
The festival is essentially a celebration of classical music, but mugham, Azerbaijan’s own form of traditional music, seasons the festival. Mugham is an intrinsic part of the festival. It is not merely played alongside. When the music of the tar stringed instrument joins in, the player performs from within the orchestra. It is this inclusion that attracts performers and audiences alike.
Azerbaijan multiculturalism in action and reality was reflected at the X Gabala International Music Festival. It was a coexistence and harmony of peoples, cultures, religions and music that might only be found in Azerbaijan.
The writer is a political analyst and commentator on Israeli public TV and radio on Azerbaijan-Israeli and Israel-Turkish relations.