Maltese festival, Armenian violinist and habitus questions

Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu famously defined the sum of acquired tastes and various dispositions as habitus – not exactly an over-structure where individuals merely participate, but neither an individual portfolio of competences, crafted upon a free choice among components. Although this theory is about everything and anything, I find it very useful both academically and in my own observations about societies.

On April 20th a friend and I went to see a free concert in Valletta – a part of the Malta International Music Festival. The concert hall, hidden somewhere inside the Mediterranean Conference Centre, looked long and small, and we wondered where we could enjoy the best acoustics. The crowd looked cheerful, and there were several dressed-up children with excited parents, suggesting that the Russia-based duo, Karen Shakhgaldyan (violin) and Natalia Sokolovskaya (piano) are not the only stars of the evening for some.

Nearly everybody I heard spoke Russian. I still don′t quite know why this year′s International Music Festival has such a strong Armenian presence and whether this is the case every year, but some people at the door looked typically Armenian, and chatted with their companions in Russian.

The concert hall was half empty on a Thursday night that was not exactly full of events. When I found out about this concert, I memorized the violin and piano duet, without paying attention to anything that could explain the dressed-up children. Some of them were now practicing on the piano on stage. I turned to two women in the next row and asked them, in Russian, whether they could borrow me the concert brochure that they had. They said I could keep it. The brochure explained that the first part will consist of master classes participants giving their final performances – the youngest being 10 and the oldest two – 30. Three of them were Maltese, two Russian, and I heard the youngest one, from Ireland, speak Russian to her parents. “At least 50% of the audience speak Russian,” my companion observed.

Both Russian participants stood out with their fervor, technique and decision to play from memory. However, the greatest musical delight was offered by an Italian teenager who, after her individual performance, played a composition for six hands together with her two co-nationals. At this point even my companion, not a big fan of classical music, started filming. If they are still in Malta, I would be happy to pay to see young Carlotta Guerra and her buddies play together like that. From Youtube, I see that another participant, Anastasiya Makhamendrikova, also plays for four hands with her sister (?).

After the concert, we will spend a few more moments wondering discussing the classical music ‘market’ in Malta. We previously went to the opera, where the most common language spoken seemed to be German. I enjoyed having conversations with elderly Germans, who made sure to visit their opera during their holidays in Malta.

In the past, I did academic research on Russian-speakers’ community-building in Israel. The classical concert experience brought me back to those times, the curious eavesdropping at conversations in Russian at the opera and concerts, the conversations I had with struggling former teachers and intellectuals, the presentations at the Russian Cultural Center in Tel Aviv, which were mostly about feeling proud and isolated at the same time. The kind of habitus I studied there was alive and well here, in another Mediterranean country and around the world. It led people to congregate and enjoy one another′s company in classical culture venues, and it also pushed some of them to torture their children with piano and violin lessons – some of these children will be thankful for the torture when they grew up.

I thought about the meticulous realistic paintings at the cultural center in Tel Aviv, so proudly out of place in both their technique and their themes. I remembered craning our necks from our cheap seats at the Budapest Opera to take in a Russian ballet performance, where I went with two companions from Azerbaijan. I thought about how I could instantly talk to any of these people in the audience about classical music, and be able to relate to them, and to appreciate the demanding, sometimes even cruel mastery these genres require. I would find it beautiful and inspiring any time, but not necessary and not necessarily superior in our times.

Anyway, most of us at the audience were there to appreciate the international stars – Armenian-born violinist Karen Shakhgaldyan and the young and promising pianist Natalia Sokolovskaya. Having chosen melodies by Prokofiev, Grieg, and previously unheard to me Alexey Shor, the musicians walked us into several separate, but connected stories. I contemplated how Lithuanians often say that the violin cries, and violinists make it cry (virkdo smuiką), but I would rather say that it talks. Somehow I find the violin to be the closest to human speech among all instruments I know of. Sokolovskaya on her piano made sure that her colleague was ‘talking’ to us against a deep, mysterious backdrop.

Karen Shakhgaldyan nine years ago

Natalia Sokolovskaya plays Chopin

Today is the last day of the festival, and perhaps the closing event, with expensive tickets and with Misha Katz conducting, will be full of Maltese people, busting the timid observations I have made from two classical culture events. I hope so.

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