Officials in Georgia harbor ambitions of turning the South Caucasus country into a global cultural center, but those plans took a big hit when a deal to bring the New York Philharmonic to Tbilisi imploded recently. Now, Georgian officials are scrambling to repair the damage done to the country’s image.
The concerts, which were scheduled for October 21-22 in Tbilisi and Batumi, were supposed to celebrate the country’s emergence as a destination for international orchestras and musical acts. Instead, the last-minute collapse of the deal highlighted the emerging democracy’s limited financial resources and inexperience.
Officials at the Georgian Ministry of Culture sounded contrite and chastened when discussing the cancelled concerts, describing the whole affair as an “unfortunate” disappointment.
Manana Muskhelashvili, director of the Department of International Programs at the ministry, said she feels “ashamed” about how things worked out. “You cannot say it is just their fault or just our fault,” she said. “But what we have on our hands now is something that is no good for us, and it is also not good for them.”
“There are no winners, just losers,” she added. “That is what we regret very much.”
Negotiations between the New York Philharmonic and the Georgian Culture Ministry started in February and concert dates were officially announced by the symphony in June. Lisa Batiashvili, an ethnic Georgian violinist credited with initiating the concert talks, was set to perform Shostakovich's Violin Concerto No. 1 in Tbilisi and Batumi.
Plans devolved into mutual recrimination and regret in late September when Georgian officials abruptly informed the New York Philharmonic’s president and chief executive officer, Zarin Mehta , the deal was off.
In comments reported by the The New York Times, Mehta said he was “apoplectic” over the “irresponsible and unprofessional” decision. Georgians involved in the negotiations contended that the main reason for the breakdown in negotiations was connected to delays caused by the philharmonic, not Tbilisi. According to the Georgian version of events, orchestra officials reportedly took forever to finalize their budget. Muskhelashvili – who joined the negotiations over the summer after a staff reshuffle at the ministry – told EurasiaNet.org that despite months of talking, the total cost of the Georgian tour was not determined until September.
“[W]e cannot sign a contract if we don’t have the final amount. We were waiting. We were just waiting for the final details,” Muskhelashvili said
The New York Philharmonic did not respond to an email request for comment, although Mehta accused the ministry of not answering the phone “for weeks” in an interview with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. Shortly after news of the Georgian fiasco broke, Mehta announced that he would be stepping down from his posts at the philharmonic when his contract expired at the conclusion of the 2011-12 season.
According to Mikheil Giorgadze, the director of Eastern Promotions and a party in the negotiations, the cancellation certainly dealt a blow to Georgia’s cultural strategy, but Tbilisi can recover, provided that Georgian officials learn from the experience.
“This is of course not something good … although I would not blame it really on the Georgian government not being serious about the whole thing,” he said. Noting that “everyone [on both sides] was so excited about this project,” he indicated that inexperience in Tbilisi played a role in the deal’s demise.
“[T]he deeper the Georgian government went into the logistical and production side of it, the more they [officials] realized how expensive it comes out to be,” Giorgadze said. “The numbers were really crazy. It all ran up to something, including the taxes, over $2.5 million. It was unrealistic for the government to pay such an amount.”
The total budget for the ministry is 81 million lari (roughly $44 million).
The biggest unknown for Tbilisi was the cost of two charter planes, arranged by the New York Philharmonic, to bring the orchestra’s musicians and instruments from Germany to Tbilisi.
According to Muskhelashvili, the parties had decided that the symphony would arrange the transportation and then notify the Georgian government about the cost. She noted that they believed “with the financial part everything is clear.”
“We had some estimation … and this was an amount really over the estimated costs,” she said, noting that as soon as they found out the true cost – reportedly over a million dollars – they cancelled.
Giorgadze, who has been bringing international jazz stars to Georgia since 1998, said Tbilisi will have to pay more attention to the fine points of arranging such mega-events in the future. “I believe it [the New York Philharmonic debacle] will make, probably, other orchestras more cautious [about coming to Georgia]. And it is also a lesson for the government to look into reality more in details, to look into the logistics of the project, look into the production details of the project,” he said.
According to sociologist Iago Kachachkishvili, the Georgian government has a history of overlooking the details. “[T]his is probably an indicator of the whole policy of [President Mikheil Saakashvili’s] government, which is they act first and then think about it,” he said.
“It is not very elaborated, not very organized and you can have a lot of examples of those decisions that were made just ad hoc,” Kachachkishvili added.
But Muskhelashvili, who along with the rest of Georgia’ stressed the ministry has walked away wiser: next time, she said, they will try to anticipate problems before they arise.
“[We will try] to figure out all the details – including what doesn’t seem like a problem but what could be a problem [later on],” she said. “I still hope that we can – after five years, after 10 years –forget this terrible story and start working on some new project.”
Molly Corso is a freelance journalist based in Tbilisi.