The International George Enescu Festival Tradition And The Romanian Athenaeum - The Symbol Building For Romanian Musical Culture

In the heart of Romania's Capital stands the monumental building of the Romanian Athenaeum, the symbolic edifice of the most significant musical events ever since 1889 and, at the same time, the cradle of the International "George Enescu" Festival. There is no musical personality or worldly-recognized artistic formation who has failed to give a concert on the scene of this Bucharest hall, which has now been for almost half a century the permanent residence of the orchestra and academic choir of the Philharmonic who bears the name of the most outstanding Romanian musician. Two emblematic sculptures – inside, that of George Enescu, the musician of genius and outside the building, Mihai Eminescu, "the peerless poet" – keep watch over this edifice designed after an ancient model, whose acoustic and grandeur, unique, as it were, seem to defy the centuries. Earthquakes, vehement storms, destructive wars and bombings have not managed to disturb the roots of the Romanian Athenaeum, which was amazingly enough destined as an equestrian manège and as a circus, in the ancient Roman style. The history of the building began in 1871, when the Romanian Equestrian Society in Bucharest cast the circular foundations destined to correspond to two functions: that of a riding school exercise hall, and that of the first stable circus in Romania. The fund shortage and the dissolution of the Society interrupted the works for the Capital's central building; this prompted the Bucharest mayor to decide buying the site and continuing the construction with multiple functions (concerts, painting and sculpture exhibitions, library, literary and artistic conferences a.s.o.). It may sound incredible, but it is true: funds were raised by public collection, as a result of a national lottery (500,000 tickets, with a minimum value) that was kept open to the largest number of citizens, and employed a euphonic slogan invented by the naturalist Constantin Esarcu (1836–1898): "Contribute one leu for the Atheneu(m)!". The French architect Albert Galeron was commissioned to make the drawings for the building, and the Romanian architect Constantin Băicoianu erected the Athenaeum within only three years (1885-1888); it was officially opened in the spring of 1889. The peristyle of the façade consists of eight Ionic columns (imitating the Greek columns of the Erechteion temple on the Acropolis in Athens) and it supports a triangular gable. The interior circular hall is marked by 12 marble columns supporting the concert hall on the floor above it (it has 650 stalls at ground level and 400 seats disposed as two rows of circular boxes). An immense dome embroidered with sculptures (with no inner supporting piles) provides an impeccable acoustic from any part of the hall, and twenty round windows decorated with lyres and golden crowns let the outdoor light come in during the day; sometimes the sun rays knit their reflections very spectacularly. Four winding staircases and a monumental marble stair, perpendicular on the entrance door, contribute to the image the elegance and power comparable only to the similar qualities characteristic for the grand buildings of the antiquity. For seven years after its official opening, i.e., between 1890 and 1897, the auxiliary spaces were completed (the pinakotek, study rooms), and between 1924 and 1927 a further hall was finished in the basement, a cinema hall, later transformed into a Chamber music studio, after the world war, in 1945. In 1938, the great circular fresco was uncovered (it was characterized as "a lesson in authentic patriotism, in national history, for all those ever to be admitted in this edifice" by the president of the Society of the Romanian Athenaeum, Constantin Angelescu); it was painted by Costin Petrescu (1871–1950) and it shows the landmarks in the history of the Romanian people starting from ancient Dacia until the Great Union of 1918 and the moment of King Ferdinand's coronation. One year later (in 1939), the great organ was inaugurated; it had been George Enescu who had fought to gather enough funds to buy it for a quarter of a century, by exhausting concerts and recitals. The 1940 earthquake and Hitler's 1944 bombing deteriorated the building, which was refurbished in 1945, modernly furbished between 1966 and 1967, then consolidated after the devastating earthquake of 1977 and the political events of the 1989 Revolution. Today the Romanian Athenaeum "has grown younger", with its festive dress that enables it to accommodate, every three years, the International "George Enescu" festival, the most spectacular musical event of contemporary Romanian culture. The history of the Romanian Athenaeum cannot be separated from the presence in Bucharest of Pietro Mascagni, Igor Stravinski, Richard Strauss, Vincent d'Indy, Serghei Prokifiev, Béla Bartók, Maurice Ravel, Felix Weingartner, Yehudi Menuhin, David Oistrah, Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowsky, Alfred Cortot, Pablo Casals, Sciatoslav Richter, Aldo Ciccolini, but also by the pleiad of great Romanian musicians headed by George Enescu, D.G. Kiriac, Dimitrie Dinicu, George Georgescu, Dinu Lipatti, Ionel Perlea, Clara Haskil, Sergiu Celibidache, Constantin Silvestri, Valentin Gheorghiu, Ion Voicu, Radu Aldulescu, Mihai Brediceanu, Iosif Conta, Cristian Mandeal, Horia Andreescu etc. There is no autochthonous absolute first audition later to acquire world-wide recognition which did not open here, just as it has always been the golden dream of any young musician of talent to play or sing, at least once in her or his life on the stage of this historic venue. For all the considerable number of prestigious artistic presences and other memorable events, there is probably nothing to equal the International "George Enescu" Festival , this major festivity that has been transforming Bucharest yearly ever since 1958 into the musical capital of the world. In the fall of this year, 2001, the fifteenth edition of this artistic competition will take place, in conjunction with the traditional international Competitions and Symposia that have justly earned the unanimous recognition. Designed to compel the world-wide recognition of George Enescu's multilateral personality and of the Romanian composing school, the scientific and artistic manifestations initiated by the Romanian State after the death of the maestro (in 1955) have plentifully fulfilled their goal, hence the national cultural phenomenon can be said to step into the next millenium sure of its own major achievements. Enescu is nowadays a creator of universal status, his masterpiece Oedipus being now performed on the lyrical scenes of Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Warsaw, Kassel, Saarbrücken, Weimar etc., alongside the classical scores of the genre, while Enescu's disciples dominate the interpretative art of the turn of the 20th century. It is enough to briefly review the International "George Enescu" Festival editions from 1958 until 2001 to notice the essential mutations that have occurred in the recognition accorded to the great Romanian composer. If it is a fact that half a century ago it was considered something miraculous to have any one foreign conductor staging a symphony or suite by Enescu or to have a violinist who undertook to play the difficult Sonata No 3 for piano and orchestra "in Romanian folk key" and we would probably have considered the latter a mere benevolent gesture, today, moments of this kind appear usual, normal . At the maestro's death, some of his works had not yet been publicly interpreted, today we have his whole creation recorded on discs, in parallel interpretations, with the most outstanding musicians of the world. The lyrical tragedy Oedipus had not been performed before 1955 anywhere else than in Paris, while today – apart from the already cited interpretations and the tours of the Romanian Opera in Europe – we have integral recordings of his work on compact discs, both in Romanian and in foreign versions. Owing to that masterful staging in Bucharest, in 1958, of the Oedipus opera, due to Jean Rânzescu and Constantin Silvestri, with David Ohanesian as the protagonist, this opera is included among the first five masterpieces of the lyrical theatre in the 20th century. It goes without saying that each International "George Enescu" festival has brought over to Bucharest the most representative interpreters of the age, alongside the symphonic and chamber music formations, the lyrical theatres the ballet formations, the researchers and musicologists who concentrated their skill and scientific investigations on the inheritance of the Romanian maestro. It is actually impossible to even cite the names of the main personalities who honored the various editions of this Romanian artistic competition – there is not enough room for such a project. Still, there have been names such as Herbert von Karajan, Leopold Stokowski, Zubin Mehta, Lorin Maazel, Antal Dorati, Daniel Barenboim, Genadi Rojdestvenski, Myung Whung, Serge Baudo, Iuri Temirkanov, Roberto Benzi, Sir John Barbiroli, Georges Prêtre, or Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, David Oistrah, Mstislav Rostropovici, Salvatore Accardo, Vladimir Spivakov, Gidon Kremer, Teresa Berganza, Barbara Hendricks, Monte Pederson, Matti Salminen, Paul Badura-Skoda, Friedrich Gulda, Van Cliburn, Claudio Arrau, André Watts, Nadia Boulanger, Li-Min-Cean, Arthur Rubinstein, Sviatoslav Richter, Henryck Szering a.s.o., the list of universal musical luminaries delighting thousands of listeners who crowded into the Bucharest concert venues. That the Festival had acquired a well-deserved world aura is something that became obvious as early as 1998, when the director of this artistic event was a foreign personality, the director Lawrence Foster, an excellent connoisseur and interpreter of the Romanian composer's work. The fact that in only one edition, the 1998 one, there were gathered in Bucharest so many formations from Chicago, Paris, Cologne, Moscow, Jerusalem, Budapest, Zurich, London, Vilnius, Barcelona, Frankfort, Rome signifies precisely that one Romanian manifestation has managed to get inscribed in the circuit of the most prestigious international festival. At a time when such long-standing competitions as Bayreuth- with over a century tradition, Verona, Florence, Ljubljana, Edinburgh, Osaka , San Sebastian and others with a 50 years' tradition are beginning to lose their glamour and personality, the International "George Enescu" festival is now experiencing, after a transient eclipse in the 80s, an enviable prestige. It is expected that the edition to come will be a sensation both through its profile and through the participation. The Romanian Athenaeum has already donned its festive attire (i.e., it has had its electrical, technical, acoustic installations completely refurbished) and it is now expecting the arrival of its guests. George Enescu deserves such an artistic festival, since he turned, through his work, the Romanian musical school into a universal "great power", as a distinguished German commentator stated over a decade ago.

by Viorel Cosma (b. 1927)