Everything began with a blank sheet

Maestro Mikhail Finberg tells us about the history of the Slavonic Bazaar and of the major criteria for judging contestants

By Svetlana Ivanisheva

The National Academic Concert Orchestra of Belarus is deservedly thought of as a calling card of the Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk. For the twenty years of the Festival’s existence, the Honoured Orchestra — headed by maestro Mikhail Finberg — has never missed this international forum of arts. Many times, its musicians have performed their unique concert programmes on the Summer Amphitheatre’s stage, working jointly with the most outstanding pop stars from all over the globe.

Mr. Finberg is among those who founded the Festival and knows well its history. With this in mind, our interview with the maestro begins with recollections:

Our orchestra was set up in 1987 and, as its Director and Artistic Head, I was ordered to prepare a large festival. I did not understand then what an event this would be. Later, it became clear that this was the Polish Song Festival — held in the USSR for the first time. The Belarusian leadership decided to organise it in 1988 in Vitebsk, which was twinned with Polish Zielona Gora (as a reply to its hosting of festivals of Soviet songs). 

Initially, the culture minister of the time, Yuri Mikhnevich, doubted that Vitebsk would host the new festival. I remember him saying that ‘probably, everything will be held in Minsk’. Actually, we needed to build an amphitheatre in a short period of time in Vitebsk, ready for the festival. Surprisingly, it took just eight months. Construction works were conducted ‘from paper’, with Vitebsk architect Vyacheslav Babashkin drawing sketches and immediately giving them to builders.

The first All-Union Polish Song Festival was held at the highest possible level, with many Polish guests arriving in Vitebsk. Wojciech Jaruzelski and Mikhail Gorbachev sent their greetings. Everything was held on a very serious level.  It took place for the second time in 1990… and then disappeared, as the USSR split.

Discussing what a Vitebsk festival should look like, the idea of a ‘Slavonic Bazaar’ emerged. It was held for the first time in 1992 and, since then, Vitebsk has annually hosted the International ‘Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk’ Arts Festival. Even today, it is one of the best European festivals.

I know you have a special attitude to the Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk…

I believe that the artistic birth of our orchestra took place at this very festival and I’m proud of the huge experience it has given me. There was a time when no backing tracks were used; concerts enjoyed the live accompaniment of our orchestra. The ‘Slavonic Bazaar in Vitebsk’ is not just a holiday of good music; it is a true professional school.

I must stress that the Festival has given me a wonderful opportunity to meet and work with many prominent musicians and artistes. Sadly, I’m unable to name them all but they include Belarusian, Russian, Polish, Bulgarian, Yugoslavian, Turkish and American stars.

This year, the National Academic Concert Orchestra  accompanied performances by laureates and winners of former international pop song contests (since 1992) at the Summer Amphitheatre. In addition, it played for contestants of the Vitebsk-2011 competition.

This huge festival burden has pushed you to refuse chairing the contest’s international jury. However, it’s interesting to know your major criteria for judging young performers.

It’s very simple. It’s not how a contestant sings but who they might become after the curtain falls. In my view, this is of major importance. It’s quite often happens that a young artiste brings home numerous awards and titles from various  competitions but, within just a few months, we hear nothing further of them; this happens when they are not an artiste but a singer of a single song.

Nevertheless, I always urge young singers to enjoy a successful contest performance.

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