MINIATURE MASTER One meeting leads to another, and I was grateful to Mumtoz Kamolzoda, Craig Murray’s Russian translator at the Turkish Cultural Centre, for introducing me to the work of one of Tajikistan’s most distinguished and unusual artists: her father Olim Kamalov, who was born in Dushanbe in 1960. olim-kIn the days of Sikunder Burnes, Central Asia – from Persia to India – was aesthetically united by Miniature Painting. But we don’t hear much about it these days, and I presumed it had fallen into abeyance. I had never contemplated this exquisite, painstakingly intricate form of creative expression having anything to do with contemporary art. But in Tajikistan it does – thanks largely to Kamalov, one of the few professional miniaturists working today. After studying the Palekh lacquer technique (so-called because it originated in the small Russian town of Palekh, between Yaroslavl and Nizhni-Novgorod), he became chief artist at Dushanbe’s famed Armugon craft centre, and now works as a graphic designer and illustrator for Istikbol magazine and Adib Publishing House. cockfight_2012-2He perpetuates the ancient miniature tradition – supremely embodied, in his eyes, by Kamoliddin Bekhzod, leader of the 15th century Herat School – by giving specialist classes to children at the Mino Art Centre, which he founded in 2009. He also produces individual works in tempera on wood, paper or canvas (and sometimes on plates) – not on the eye-slapping scale prevalent on the walls of many modern interiors, but in a 50 x 40cm format that invites the sort of quiet contemplation Westerners reserve for Old Master paintings (his colours, mind you, are pretty eye-slapping). Prices run mainly in the £2,000-3,000 range. Kamalov’s works are usually shown at exhibitions held under State auspices – most recently at Geneva’s Palais des Nations in in October 2016, as part of an exhibition marking 25 years of Tajik Independence. Last July, in London, Kamalov represented Tajikistan at the Ethnocultural Traditions exhibition held by shepherdRossotrudnichestvo to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Independence States. His work has also been shown at several foreign embassies in Tajikistan, and at Tajik embassies abroad (Moscow, Paris, Minsk, Delhi). Apart from their painterly skill, Kamalov’s pictures are of note for their elaborate borders and sly intrusions of the modern world. In Cockfight (2013), one beturbanned protagonist gallops up in timeless fashion on a grey mare, but another must have zoomed to the scene in the red car parked alongside. In Playing Chess (2012), a boy leans his bike against a tree from which a bird cage dangles ironically. By way of contrast, Kamalov’s smaller work The Shepherd (2013) concentrates on a single figure – granted a facial expressiveness no Renaissance artist would have disowned. TAJIK FUSION azam-kOlim’s father Azam Kamilov (1912-71) was also an outstanding figure on the Tajik cultural scene. He was born and grew up in Samarkand, where he began his career in music – moving to Dushanbe in 1936 to direct the People’s Orchestra at the Lakhuti Academy Theatre. He was made a People’s Artist of the Tajik SSR in 1941, becoming head of the Dushanbe Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra in 1942, then conductor of the Orchestra of the Tajik Republic in 1953. He was also a mighty fine composer. His output ranged from songs and choral pieces – sometimes using folk instruments – to symphonic works for piano and orchestra. His 1938 Tajikistan Suite is a searing example of the ability of Central Asia’s finest composers to fuse Eastern and Western influences in their music. BG’S GEOGRAPHY LESSON Talking of music, I had the chance to attend two superb concerts in London during Russian Week – and, amazingly, one of them had a connection with Alexander Burnes. 2016-11-26-november-2016-004That’s because it was held at the Royal Geographical Society – which commissioned Burnes’ portrait and gave him a Gold Medal in 1835. Such an august, pre-Victorian institution was the last place I would expect to attend a concert of Russian rock music, but this wasn’t any old concert. Boris Grebenshikov – the legendary B.G., one of the leading lights on the Russian music scene for the last four decades – was in town, accompanied by longstanding Aquarium colleagues Alexander Titov on bass and Alexey Zubarev on lead guitar, plus experienced session musician Liam Bradley on drums. B.G. was sporting dark glasses, a dark skull-cap and a quilted shirt of coloured squares. Zubarev strutted his stuff in a crimson shirt, silk waistcoat and purple trousers. Titov and Bradley confined themselves to sober black. The rapturously received two hour-set showcased the sweeping range of Grebenshikov’s musical vista – from reflective, lyrical pieces, sung in a husky voice sunk over his guitar like a Russian Gerry Rafferty, to raunchy anthems in the rasping, hard-hitting style of Vladimir Vysotsky. B.G. occasionally addressed the audience with pithy, soft-spoken asides, as if chatting to friends around a camp-fire. 602f8f8c-e1c4-4f9c-b584-7a1467c5056cAt the champagne reception afterwards – sponsored by Kasperskian Caviar, presumably in honour of Sikunder Burnes’ impromptu repast on the Caspian Sea in 1832 –  B.G. put in a brief appearance, together with another legend of Russian contemporary culture: renegade art dealer Marat Guelman. Meanwhile I enjoyed an enlightening conversation with the twinkle-fingered Alexey Zubarev, whose flamboyant on-stage persona cloaks an erudite yet modest man who shirks the limelight between concerts by repairing to his isolated home on a tiny island north of Vyborg, next to the Finnish border. The evening was immaculately impresario’d by the eternally youthful Alexandrina Markvo, whom I first met during Russian Week last June – at Shapero Rare Books in Mayfair, where she was organizing an exhibition devoted to Kazakh artist Alexander Erashov (born 1972). S IS FOR SPUTNIK… 61b60azqgjl-_sx394_bo1204203200_I was first introduced to Erashov’s powerful graphic work in 2014 by Tatyana Kukushkina, Manager of the Ular Gallery in Almaty. He has recently produced a typically eccentric Russian Alphabet Colouring Book, splendidly subtitled From Sputnik to Gorbachev and claiming to ‘take the humble colouring-book into a new dimension.’ This quirky volume is a little gem, and will entertain young and old. … AND FOR STALIN AT THE CRICKET Although there was no themed exhibition at Shapero during November’s Russian Week, you can always rely on departmental specialist Yulia Fedorenko to provide a stimulating choice of unusual Russian material. When I popped in to see her at 32 George Street on November 28 she whipped out three delightfully different items: an 1890s photo album of British oil-workers in Grozny (Chechnya); a 1960s typewritten samizdat version of Bulgakov’s Heart Of A Dog; and a 1989 folder of Perestroika Posters starring an eyeless Stalin in an MCC tie. I know Lord’s have a more relaxed admissions policy these days, but this is ridiculous…. capture OVERSEAS YURITHMICS My second concert of Russian Week took place at an equally improbable venue: the Royal Over-Seas League in St James’s. It featured the Russian Virtuosi of Europe under charismatic leader Yuri Zhislin, and was part of the Eastern Seasons week of events (November 28–December 5) that also included a Russian-British Business Forum at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre, a tennis tournament at Queen’s Club, a Gala Dinner, and a Reception hosted by the Russian Ambassador. The Virtuosi teamed up with crackerjack Iranian harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani for an electrifying concert entitled Time Regained: From Baroque to Contemporary. Its two harpsichord concertos, by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Henryk Górecki (1933-2010), were composed 250 years apart. The Bach – the first of seven concertos he wrote for the harpsichord – was by far the lengthier piece. The vibrant, stacatto interpretation, powered by Siret Lust’s crunching double-bass, was as sharp as the stiletto heels sported by the racier members of Yuri Zhislin’s glamorous ensemble. At times I felt I was listening to Rick Wakeman and Chris Squire. ‘Hmm’ commented Yuri. ‘I love Progressive Rock.’ The Górecki Harpischord Concerto was commissioned by Polish Radio, and first performed in Katowice on 2 March 1980, with Elżbieta Chojnacka (to whom the work is dedicated) as soloist. It lasts a mere nine minutes and has two movements – the second devoted to jagged, manically repetitive interplay between keyboard and strings. 2016-11-28-november-2016-024Yuri abandoned his seat at the front of the stage to stand next to Eshhani behind the harpsichord. ‘You have to keep one eye on the soloist and one eye on the orchestra’ he explained. ‘You have to follow the line. You have to be all ears. You have to count like crazy. The same patterning is repeated 150 times. It is impossible to memorize it. The individual patterns don’t relate to each other, they just continue – you can’t count 1 to 8! Then, right in the middle, one pattern changes slightly!’ The impish Górecki called his concerto ‘a prank.’ To Zhislin, ‘it drives along and puts you in a trance. The last time I played it the audience were screaming.’ * Yuri was talking to me backstage at the Royal Albert Hall the day after the concert. He is a sparkle-eyed bear of a man with great charm, perfect English and contagious enthusiasm. Two days earlier he had been in Jakobstad, a small town in north-west Finland. ‘It was all a bit surreal’ he chuckled. ‘You walk through dark streets in the middle of nowhere into this beautiful modern arts centre with fantastic acoustics!’ The main item on the programme had been just as unlikely: a ‘very clever’ chamber music arrangement of Bruckner’s towering 7th Symphony. It had required ‘two days of long, difficult, non-stop rehearsals’ and was part of the six-day RUSK Chamber Music Festival in Jakobstad’s Schauman Hall (opened 2013). ‘There’s surprisingly big demand in Finland’ reports Yuri appreciatively. Grappling with Bruckner on the edge of Lapland was another weird and wonderful experience for this exuberantly eclectic musician – who has played for Prince Charles at Highgrove, starred on Top Of The Pops, and shared a recording studio with sultry ski stringstress Vanessa Mae. Yuri Zhurin was born in Moscow in 1974 and began violin at the age of six. He moved to London as a teenager to attend the Royal College of Music, where his father Grigory was among the teachers. He was Radio 2’s Young Musician of the Year in 1993; became First Violin of the London Mozart Players in 1997; then leader of the Russian Chamber Orchestra of London in 1998. es_28nov_16_00061He launched the Russian Virtuosi Of Europe in 2004. All the musicians have a CIS background, freelance status, and are based in London. ‘First and foremost we are all good friends’ specifies Yuri. The ensemble follows his devastating musical lead in seamless sync: taut, crisp and precise, playing with piercing lyricism but scant sentimentality. They have performed internationally from Russia to South America. Their chief London venue is the Kings Place culture centre behind King’s Cross station. Yuri wishes they could play together more regularly: they gave just three concerts in November, and prepared for the Over-Seas League with two on-site rehearsals on the day. He enjoyed the venue’s intimate feel, but found the acoustics a little dry and echoey. The Virtuosi often play in churches, such as St John’s Smith Square and St Jamess Piccadilly (Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, by candlelight, on December 23). They repaired to All Saints in East Finchley to record their first CD (featuring Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings and Souvenir de Florence) one year ago. Yuri is keen to make more recordings, and plans their next CD to have a British feel. ‘There is some amazing British chamber music’ he enthuses. Works by Vaughn-Williams and Benjamin Britten (his song cycle Les Illuminations) have been pencilled in. SOVIET MULTIMEDIA ART AT PUSHKIN HOUSE Until January 15 Pushkin House is hosting From Points Of Level Zero, the first international exhibition devoted to Yuri Sobolev (1928-2002) – a pioneer of multimedia art in the USSR, who revolutionized the Russian approach to visual aesthetics in the 1960s and early 1970s. 2016-11-30-november-2016-035Highlight is a video of the futuristic 30-screen presentation Sobolev concocted for the International Industrial Design Council’s 1975 annual congress, staged in Moscow. This juxtaposes images of contemporary technology and mass-produced goods with older, more familiar art, and proved far too radical for strait-laced Soviet authorities – who promptly banned the display as ‘ideologically dubious’ and prohibited Sobolev from making any more such experiments. The animated film Glass Harmonica, which Sobolev made with Ülo Sooster in 1968, features collages, hand-drawn figures and images of Renaissance art, all rotating to the music of Schnittke, and was completed around the same time as the invasion of Czechoslovakia – when such freethinking was immediately suppressed. As a result, this Cultural Monty Python of a video was not shown in public until Perestroika. It can be viewed  at Pushkin House on a giant Panasonic monitor placed with charming incongruity on a leather-topped 18th century desk. Curator Olga Jürgenson points out the influence of Sergei Eisenstein and Alexander Rodchenko. The Pushkin House exhibition – largely assembled from the collection of Sobolev’s widow Galina Metelichenko – also includes conceptual drawings whose quiet humour, muted palette and linear precision bring Kabakov to mind. Sobolev was also a pioneering book illustrator and theatre designer. He spent the latter part of his life in Tsarskoye Selo, outside St Petersburg, where he ran the Interstudio summer school. Sobolev was revered by Russia’s artistic cognoscenti but little-known abroad. Now, after decades of critical neglect, his time has come. Sobolev retrospectives were held at Moscow’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 2014 and the Zarya Contemporary Art Centre in Vladivostok in 2016, and his works will feature in the Symmetrical Worlds exhibition that opens at Tallinn’s splendid Kumu Museum on March 3. Please click here to download a PDF version of Simon Hewitt’s article