BUCHAREST, Romania (AP) — Romania's Queen Marie believed that life is a glorious celebration of music and song. A century later, the country's capital city of Bucharest, once known as the Paris of the East, has lived up to the queen's motto by staging the most ambitious classical music festival Romania has ever seen.
The Salzburg festival in Austria and the annual summer music festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, are more established classical music events on the European circuit. But the George Enescu Festival, now in its 21st edition, has been quietly but surely making a name for itself, aided by its artistic director Ioan Holender, the Romanian-born musician who directed the Vienna State Opera from 1992 to 2010.
An estimated 4,500 people went to 150 concerts, and a record 120,000 tickets were sold for the September festival that drew important orchestras from Europe and the United States.
Enescu, who died in 1955, was a Romanian composer, violinist and conductor who moved to Paris when the communists came to power. The festival always begins and ends with his compositions.
Some of the tickets sold out in hours. Concerts were even offered as part of the itinerary for a classical music- themed cruise on the Danube that also included concerts in Salzburg and Budapest for a pricey 7,000 euros ($9,450).
"I was struck by how prominent (the festival) is in Romanian cultural life," said Noah Bendix Balgley, concertmaster of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, which played on Sept. 2 and 3. He called the "audience energy and response ... incredible," noting that the hall was standing-room only.
Other orchestras in the festival's lineup were the Orchestre de Paris, the National Philharmonic Orchestra of Russia, The Munich Philharmonic, the Staatskapelle Berlin and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, which played Brahms and Enescu in a concert conducted by Vladimir Jurowsky.
Romanian math teacher Elena Ungureanu went to eight concerts. "There was a very high standard of music and the soloists and orchestras were special," she said. "There were lots of young people and many people were standing. I wouldn't have had the chance to see such great orchestras if they hadn't come here."
One morning during the festival, violin and flute music floated across Revolution Square, a tranquil historic spot in the otherwise traffic-snarled capital, as tourists and passers-by crossed. It was a fitting musical footnote to the Wagner, Beethoven and Mozart concerts that rung out from concerts at the nearby 19th century Atheneum and the Palace Hall, where late dictator Nicolae Ceausescu presided over the Communist Party's final congress weeks before his downfall and execution in December 1989.
"The concerts are very good value for money," said Fareed Curmally, an Indian pianist and conductor who traveled to Bucharest for two weeks of concerts and purchased a CD to bring home. "And the standard of music is very high; I'm enjoying it."
The festival, which started in 1958 and is held every other year, has grown larger and more attractive in recent years as the country has opened to tourism and foreign investment. Tickets for the 2015 event will go on sale in February of that year, and if this year's success is any indication, many concerts will be sold out months before they take place.
Flowers are a hallmark of the event, with 2,500 roses, 3,500 lilies and 5,000 carnations adorning halls or presented to female artists. Bucharest has had a long love affair with flowers, because even when meat and bread were rationed, and electricity and hot water were in short supply during the dying years of Ceausescu's rule, Romanians could still buy flowers.
Between the flowers, the concerts and the ongoing restoration of buildings that had fallen into disrepair, the festival seemed to recall a heyday here in the years between the world wars: music and Bucharest, flourishing once more.