An evening remembering Qara Qarayev at the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall

Whenever I am visiting a new city or country, attending a classical music concert or the opera is on my priority list.   Main reason is of course the therapeutic effect.  Music is my salvation and antidote to the fatigue of walking around, trying to absorb every single detail during my travels.  Those concerts are my secret gardens only I allow myself to enter.  I feel elevated.  And the music itself of course feels wonderfully soothing

There is another reason. Attending a classic music concert or the opera opens the window to the cultural state of the city or the country.  I thoroughly enjoy watching the people attending – the way they dress, the way they socialize before the concert, the way they sip wine, champagne, tea, coffee, nibble on snacks or attend a small lecture beforehand, the way they behave during the concert, the audience’s respect for the performers.  I feel lifted to another place of existence as I observe and observe and soak it all in.

I was extremely fortunate as the magnificent building of the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall just popped up before my very eyes during my first day’s morning stroll in Baku, saving me the hassle of trying to find the exact location.

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It was a thrill to discover the huge sign by the façade announcing the week-long festival program, dedicated to Qara Qarayev.  And of course more of a thrill to find the door to the foyer open quite early in the morning only followed by a short disappointment when I realized that the ticket office was not yet open.

The Philharmonic Hall is perched on top of a slight hill above what is now known as the Philharmonic Park leading up from the Caspian Sea.  With time to kill until the ticket booth opened at 11:00 and a desire to get a peek of the Caspian Sea, the approximately 500 meter walk down through the park to the seaside promenade was more than just pleasant. Just outside the walls of Baku’s Old City, the park is Baku’s green oasis, an invaluable contribution to the landscape of the capital.

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As I neared the seafront, the famous Baku winds really made their presence felt. The literary name for Baku is apparently “The City of Winds” as the city I understand is windy throughout most of the year. I read later that the two winds common to Baku: cold and rough Khazri associated with negativeness and mild and gentle Gilavar associated with goodness have a standing in Azerbaijani mythology related to the struggle of Good and Evil.

In any event, those strong Caspian sea winds pierced right through me during my stroll.  So much so that I felt the strength drained from my body. The return walk up the gentle hill through that very unique park back to the Philharmonic Hall was a little bit of a struggle after all.

It was a delight to find the ticket booth open on my return, although the purchasing of the ticket was another hurdle to be tackled.  As is quite natural, the lady running the ticket booth did not speak any english so communication was slightly difficult.  In the end she made sure I understand that The Azerbaijan State Philharmonic does not accept credit cards, and that I was not going to secure a ticket with the big notes I had drawn from the ATM as the lady did not have any change.  Thankfully the men repainting the building’s exterior came to my rescue and were able to provide me with some change.  Mission accomplished I left elated with tickets at hand for the closing concert of the 6th international Qara Qarayev music festival.

The awe-inspiring yellow building of the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall is no doubt a landmark of the city. Designed by the Armenian architect Gabriel Ter-Mikelov, the exterior is Italian Renaissance and the interior is German Rococo.  Apparently the design was inspired by the architectural style of Monte Carlo Casino buildings, particularly l’Opéra de Monte-Carlo. The building, I have read, served many purposes since its construction.  Once used as for banquets and entertainment by Baku’s wealthy, it served as a place for public rallies during the Russian Civil War until 1936, when it was reorganized into a residence for the Philharmonic society to promote Azerbaijani classical and folk music.

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Attending the closing concert of the 6th Qara Qarayev International Contemporary Music Festival was certainly a delight that I will forever cherish. Little did I know that I was actually catching a concert commemorating one of the greatest Azerbaijani musicians.  I had not until then listened to Qara Qarayev’s music.  Although the evening’s program did not include Qarayev’s music, the festival “honoring” this amazing musical master was enough inspiration for me to do some research on his life and listen to his music afterwards.

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Qara Qarayev by Jalal Garyaghdi

Ranking high among the artists who brought world-wide fame to the music of Azerbaijan, Qara Qarayev is one of those great composers who enriched the Azerbaijani music with his immense legacy. Stamped with Shostakovich’s tutoring in his early years, he apparently composed his first musical piece, a cantata, “The Song of the Heart” to the poem by Rasul Rza at the age of twenty . It was performed in Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater in the presence of Joseph Stalin that very same year. He is the author of nearly 110 pieces of music, including ballets, operas, symphonic and chamber pieces, piano solos, cantatas, songs and marches. A legendary musician, Qarayev is considered as the second composer of the country next only to Uzeyir Hajibeyov, the father of classical music in Azerbaijan,

In a nutshell, the concert hall is a jewel, no doubt a music lover’s dream. The German Rococo interior is as striking as the Italian Renaissance exterior. The auditorium reflecting its time.  The visual beauty of the venue left me in absolute awe.

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Lingering around before the program started, observing the concert goers, I did grab a cup of coffee from the café and stepped outside to the veranda.  The view from the terrace is magnificent, outlining a spectacular panorama right through the park all the way down to the Caspian seafront.   I still remember the rain emanating the sensational whiff of the soil and the scent of the plants from the Philharmonic  garden.  Rain no doubt has the power to hypnotize. I was dumbfounded by the beauty of my surroundings as the rain continued to fall without a sound.

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The performance hall is an aesthetically captivating space with very unique acoustics.  The rich yellow and gold décor and the mosaic floors are simply stunning. The opulence of the interior and the tiered chandeliers add nobility.  The elegance of the interior along with the wonderful acoustics make for a wonderful experience, reflecting the priceless musical heritage. Golden sound in the golden hall.

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I will not argue that the music chosen for the concert would appeal to all and that it was “uncomplicatedly” straightforward. Many of the compositions were new to me. There was music composed by Beat FURRER, Bo NILSSON, Alexander WUSTIN, Igor STRAVINSKY, İsmayıl HACIBƏYOV, John TAVENER and Arnold SCHÖNBERG.

At first the music struck me slightly exaggerated, perhaps even incomprehensible. I felt that it was beyond ordinary language and an entirely different set of words was needed to comprehend the music.

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It was the first concert I ever encountered two conductors managing the same orchestra, the first time the chorus was spread out across the concert hall on different tiers, the first time the conductor was conducting standing alongside the audience.  Certainly it was a concert of many “first time experiences” and in that respect unique and simply sensational.

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Did I enjoy it? Certainly it was a musical heaven.

If I am ever back in Baku, I am sure I would be back for another event, to soak in the sublime acoustics and get lost in the beauty of the Philharmonic building’s magical atmosphere as if it were the first time.

I end with Qarayev’s words.

To me, Baku is the most beautiful city in the world. Every morning, when the city wakes whether it be to the sun or the rain and fog, every morning my city sings. Baku is meant for art. It gives me so much pleasure to write about this city no matter if you write music, verse or paint images.

How to get there

I would say the Azerbaijan State Philharmonic Hall is located on one of the most grandiose streets of Baku, on Istiglaliyyat Street. Weather permitting, I would recommend a walk to soak in the beauty of the surrounding architecture.

There is of course the public transportation option, the Icheri Sheher metro station is approximately 200 metres away.  Alternatively buses 37, 65 and 193 all lead to the Philharmonic Hall.

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The Icheri Sheher metro station

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