EFA Festival In Focus | George Enescu International Festival

Simon Mundy, in interview with George Enescu International Festival’s General Director, Michai Constantinescu looks at the festival’s history and current success

On the face of it the Enescu Festival, which has been held since 1950, should be easy to describe – an awful lot of music in a short space of time, played by some of the world's greatest orchestras. The more you look at it, however, the more extraordinary it becomes.

For a start, it is mainly in Bucharest. The capital of Romania can be said to have had a great 19th century, a disastrous 20th and only now, in the second decade of the 21st, can it be said to be coming back to its status in 1900 as one of Europe's most interesting and attractive cities.

The fortunes of the festival inevitably have followed the politics. It began in the years when the communist regime was new. It reached its first peak in the years when Romania was a semi-detached member of the Soviet bloc and so was more open to Western artists than most Eastern European countries. Only the Yugoslav festivals were able to present the finest musicians from both blocs in the same way.

Oedipe Jurowski, London Philharmonic Orchestra. Ph Catalina Filip

Then times became tough in the 1980s as the dictator Ceaucescu became increasingly rigid in his totalitarianism. But the 1990s, when (after his overthrow) the Romanian economy collapsed were miserable. Fees could only be paid in worthless Lei, the infrastructure was falling apart and Romania was a tragic place.

I came to know it well in those years and the idea that it could have supported a major international festival was almost inconceivable. Looking back one can see that the turnaround began in 1998 and gathered pace in the first years of this century, as Romania edged closer to European Union membership. General Director Mihai Constantinescu says, “joining the EU meant that people in the business started to trust Romanian invitations. Before that we had to pay them in advance, or they were not interested.”

The second variant from the norm is the festival's pattern. For 50 years it took place only once in every three – almost as infrequently as the Olympics - which gave it rarity value but ran the risk that people would forget about it in between editions. Perhaps, though, in the difficult years the fact that funds did not have to be found every year saved it. Since 2001 events have settled down to a biennial programme – so the next edition of the festival will take place in September 2019.

Mihai Constantinescu, George Enescu Festival

Alongside the festival there has always been a competition. In the 1960s the piano section helped launch the careers of Elizabeth Leonskaya, Radu Lupu and Dmitri Alexeev. Up until 2015 the festival and the competition ran concurrently but now the two have separated, with the prize being awarded in the year between festivals (this has the great advantage, of course, that those who do well in the competition can find a place in the following year's festival).

“It is better for everybody this way,” Mihai told me just before this year's starts, “for the audience because they don't have to choose between the concerts and the competition, better for the competitors because we can give them more attention, and better for the staff because we are not trying to do everything at the same time.”

I can see his point. The festival itself is quite enough to be going on with. It must surely be the most concentrated gathering of orchestras in one city anywhere in the world. Lists are not always helpful but in this case it really is worth listing – in order of appearance, as it used to say in film credits – the non-Romanian orchestras that will be appearing in the 2019 festival: the Berlin Philharmonic, the London Symphony Orchestra, Polish National Orch. (forgive the abbreviations from now on!), Berlin Radio SO, Orchestre Pelleas, Europa Galante, Cameristi Della Scala, Ochestre National de France, Orch. of the Age of Enlightenment, Vienna Radio SO, Staatskapelle Dresden, Accademia Bizantia, Orch. Phil. de Monte Carlo, Russian State Academic SO, Kamerata Baltica, Oslo Phil., Freiburger Baroque, Liege Phil., La Grande Chappelle Madrid, Armonia Atenea, Orch. Maggio Musicale Fiorentina, Orch. National de Lille, St. Petersburg SO, Britten Sinfonia, La Barocca, Camerata Salzburg, Les Talens Lyrique, Mahler Chamber Orchestra and Royal Concertgebouw Orch., Amsterdam.

Israel, Philarmonic Orchestra. Ph Andrei Gindac

That's leaving out a whole pile of recitalists and chamber artists and the various home-based orchestras, among them those from Iasi, Cluj-Napoca, Timisoara and Bucharest itself.

“Sometimes,” says Mihai, “we have to move 400-500 people around the city on the same day. But we try to keep all the musicians within walking distance by putting them in eight or nine hotels right in the city centre.” This, he admits, does mean that visiting audiences have to take their chances in less exclusive sleeping quarters but points out that the festival's purpose - and the reason for hosting so many ensembles – is to give local music lovers the chance to hear the best in the world within a short space of time. “Our audience can't afford to go to Berlin, London and Paris to hear these orchestras in their own cities and our philosophy is that just because people are poor does not mean they should hear bad things. On the contrary, they deserve the best. It also gives Romanian musicians, who have until recently been quite isolated, the chance to compare their own standards with their world competitors.” It is a European comparison, for the most part, however. “We have trouble bringing the American orchestras because they usually only tour in July and August, whereas we start in September.”

Such a programme must, I suggest, be incredibly expensive. It is, Mihai concedes, but it works out to be more manageable because the Ministry of Culture allows for the money to be spread over two years, even though the performances are confined to a month.

Israel, Philarmonic Orchestra. Ph Andrei Gindac

There is, nowadays, an encouraging balance between baroque, romantic, 20th century and contemporary music. The repertoire is, and always has been, centred on Enescu's music, particularly his three symphonies and his stage works, which are very rarely heard outside Romania. “It is important that these are played by foreign ensembles and conductors so Enescu's most serious compositions can be included in their own programmes,” and Mihai says it has been encouraging to see conductors like Antonio Papano, Paavo Jarvi, Christoph Eschenbach and Vladimir Jurowski [who is now the festival's Artistic Director] taking it on.”

Mihai has been part of the festival for much of the last thirty years and he is proud of the way it has developed in that time. “Now we are in the top circle of the schedule,” he says, “along with Lucerne, Edinburgh and the Proms. But it was not always like that. It took me eighteen years to persuade the Berlin Philharmonic to come.”

Further Information on George Enescu International Festivall

The George Enescu International Festival honours the remarkable work and spirit of Romania’s greatest classical composer. Enescu was a contemporary of Bartók and Stravinsky and was described by Pablo Casals as “the greatest musical phenomenon since Mozart”, an extraordinary pianist, violinist, conductor and teacher as well as composer. In addition to a full programme of concerts, the festival holds the Enescu Competition for young artists aspiring to a career in the international music arena.

Israel, Philarmonic Orchestra. Ph Andrei Gindac