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  • Born

    10 August 1935

  • Born In

    Tbilisi, Georgia

  • Died

    2 October 2019 (aged 84)

Giya Kancheli (გია ყანჩელი), (10 August 1935 – 2 October 2019) was a Georgian composer. He was born in Tbilisi, Georgia, but resided in Belgium.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, Kancheli lived in Western Europe: first in Berlin, and from 1995 in Antwerp, where he became composer-in-residence for the Royal Flemish Philharmonic. He died in his home city of Tbilisi, aged 84.

Kancheli arguably Georgia's best-known cultural export. His music is very communicative and immediate and often has a spiritual quality, which leads some to compare him (not always helpfully) to composers such as Allan Pettersson, Arvo Pärt and John Tavener. There are several instances of folk and religious inspiration in his music, notably in the opening to the Third Symphony or his more recent work Magnum Ignotum, but the effect of Georgian folk elements on his style is in spirit rather than substance, should not be overemphasised. In his symphonies, his musical language typically consists of very slow, haunting scraps of minor-mode melody against long, subdued, anguished string discords, occasionally punctuated with 'battle scenes' involving martial brass and percussion. His music post-1990 has become more refined and generally more subdued and nostalgic in character. Some commentators talk about his music in cinematic terms; one can find equivalents of dissolve (in his ubiquitous blurred tonal transitions), zoom (such as the long crescendo a third of the way into the Sixth Symphony), abrupt cuts (jumping from very loud to very quiet, as in the opening of the Fifth Symphony), and so on. Rodion Shchedrin speaks of Kancheli as "an ascetic with the temperament of a maximalist; a restrained Vesuvius".

Kancheli has written seven symphonies, and what he terms a liturgy for viola and orchestra, called Mourned by the Wind. His Fourth Symphony received its American premiere, with the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Yuri Temirkanov, in January 1978, not long before the cultural freeze in the United States against Soviet culture. Glasnost allowed Kancheli to regain exposure, and he began to receive frequent commissions, as well as performances within Europe and America. His Sixth Symphony is considered by many to be his most notable work to date. His Seventh Symphony was emphatically subtitled 'Epilogue' and he is unlikely to write any more named symphonies, but he has described his orchestral work "Trauerfarbenes Land" ('The Land Stained with Mourning') as "almost an Eighth Symphony".

Championed internationally by the likes of Dennis Russell Davies, the late Jansug Kakhidze, Gidon Kremer, Yuri Bashmet, Kim Kashkashian, Mstislav Rostropovich, and the Kronos Quartet, Kancheli has seen world premieres of his works in Seattle, as well as with the New York Philharmonic under Kurt Masur. He continues to receive regular commissions. New CDs of his recent works are regularly released, notably on the ECM label.

In Georgia, Kancheli's work is well-known in the theatre, from which he draws much of his musical composition. For two decades, he served as the music director of the Rustaveli Theatre in Tbilisi. His opera Music for the Living, written in collaboration with Rustaveli director Robert Sturua, has been praised within Europe and the former Soviet Union since its premiere in June 1984, and in December 1999, the opera was restaged for the Deutsches National Theater in Weimar. He has written music for dozens of films, many of them well-known in the Russian-speaking world but virtually unknown outside it, such as Georgi Daneliya's sci-fi cult hit Kin-dza-dza!.

Since 1991, Kancheli has lived in Western Europe: first in Berlin, and since 1995 in Antwerp, where he is composer-in-residence for the Royal Flemish Philharmonic Orchestra. He is married with a daughter.

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