Crowds in Hanoi watch jumbo screens of Music Director Alan Gilbert leading the New York Philharmonic’s Vietnam debut, October 2009.
by Jennifer Melick
Orchestras are expanding the definition of cultural diplomacy—at home
Young Iraqi musicians Honar Ali (left) and Rebin Ali (right) currently play on scholarship at the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra.
n a Friday evening just over a year ago, I sat inside the historic Hanoi Opera House in Vietnam, surrounded by government dignitaries, businessmen, music students, friends of the New York Philharmonic, and U.S. embassy officials, listening to the Philharmonic perform. Outside the sold-out house, even the city’s omnipresent motorbike riders stopped to watch the concert on screens set up for the occasion. The all-Beethoven program was followed by three encores, and, after several minutes of rhythmic clapping, the Egmont Overture, whose epic sweep seemed to satisfy the audience’s need for something grandiose and befitting the occasion. As a public symbol of reconciliation, it would be hard to find a better example than a Philharmonic concert
in Vietnam’s capital, uniting two countries formerly at war and now at peace. But for many people, the predominant recent memory of cultural diplomacy may be the New York Philharmonic’s groundbreaking February 2008 trip to North Korea. During the visit—covered by 100 journalists flown in for the occasion, and broadcast on U.S. television—the Philharmonic performed Gershwin, Dvorák, Wagner, Bizet, and Bernstein, plus the Korean folksong “Arirang.” The flags of the two countries, estranged since the Korean War and increasingly so during the past decade, were draped onstage. The Pyongyang visit was one of the biggest news stories of the year for an orchestra, and it still comes up in conversation, with symphony
and abroad. opinions sharply divided on its impact on international relations. Nevertheless, as Eric Latzky, the Philharmonic’s vice president of communications, asserts, the Pyongyang visit “codified a role that the New York Philharmonic has played historically, and certainly in the second half of the twentieth century,” citing appearances like the one in Dresden in 2005, when the Philharmonic performed at the rededication of the city’s landmark Frauenkirche, destroyed during World War II. Tours like these sometimes happen between countries that are well along in the process of rapprochement and reconciliation—like the Vietnam and Germany visits. In other cases, as with North Korea, they happen amidst fierce debate about the message that might be conveyed americanorchestras.org
by playing music in a country whose policies the U.S. strongly opposes. Clearly, there are risks to stepping—even lightly—into the potentially thorny area of cultural diplomacy, so why do orchestras do it? Sometimes it is done to spark a diplomatic conversation, using the “international language” of music as a conduit. It can be a way to share Western classical music and American culture with parts of the world that may not have a positive view of the United States. For young musicians at home and abroad, playing side-by-side with musicians from ethnically, politically, or religiously opposed groups can lead to reduced tensions down the road. Altruistic motives are behind efforts by musicians to fill educational gaps in war-ravaged countries: places
where teachers, instruments, sheet music, and the basic infrastructure of music education are lacking. And sometimes cultural diplomacy stems from a desire to simply ease the pain of survivors of a physical catastrophe by raising money to help rebuild homes—or just playing Brahms or Mozart as a way to let people know someone cares. The tradition of high-profile international orchestra tours during politically fraught times is a longstanding one. During the height of the Cold War, in 1956, the Boston Symphony Orchestra toured the Soviet Union, with conductors Charles Munch and Pierre Monteux, and the New York Philharmonic’s visit to that same country under Leonard Bernstein took place in 1959. If you’d been in Beijing or Shanghai
Chief Conductor Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra perform at the World Expo in Shanghai, China, May 2010.
Cultural-Diplomacy in Action: Highlights The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs backs numerous performing-arts exchanges connecting American artists with their counterparts abroad. More information is available from the U.S. State Department’s Cultural Programs Division; updates are posted regularly at the advocacy and government area at the League of American Orchestras’ website, which also includes information on funding opportunities. American violinist Allegra Klein, founder of the nonprofit Musicians for Harmony, has moved to Baghdad to become a full-time member of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra. Klein wrote about her work with Musicians for Harmony in the November-December 2007 issue of Symphony. Daniel Barenboim was awarded the Westphalia Peace Prize ($70,000) in October 2010 at a ceremony in Berlin attended by musicians from West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the “orchestra without borders” he founded with scholar Edward Said and which includes young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories, and other Middle East regions. Previous winners of the prize include conductor Kurt Masur and former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan. On July 16, more than 65 musicians from Turkey and Armenia performed in the inaugural concert of the Turkish Armenian Youth Orchestra at Cemal Resit Rey Concert Hall in Istanbul. On July 26, the first symphony orchestra made up of performers from mainland China and Taiwan made its debut in Beijing’s National Center for the Performing Arts, in a program of music by composers from Taiwan and mainland China. The orchestra was co-founded by the China Symphony Development Foundation (mainland China) and New Aspect Cultural and Educational Foundation (Taiwan). The Unity Rural Music Project in China, created by Fulbright scholars David Borenstein and Jon Kaiman, organized music-themed summer camps in 2010 in Sichuan and Guangxi Provinces, providing instruments, textbooks, and teacher training. The goal was to lay the foundation for sustainable music programs. Camp Unity, Ryan White’s 2008 documentary about an arts academy in the Kurdish region of Iraq, follows more than 600 Iraqi students as they study classical music, jazz, orchestra, ballet, hip-hop dance, Broadway, and theater with eight American teachers. On February 26, the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra will co-host, along with the St. Louis Arts roundtable, a one-day seminar on cultural diplomacy. Among the participants will be Cynthia Schneider, U.S. ambassador to the Netherlands from 1998 to 2001; David Cutler, author of The Savvy Musician; and local speakers. The Israel Philharmonic Orchestra will make a seven-city U.S. tour from February 19 to March 1, 2011, celebrating its 75th anniversary and drawing attention to its role as a symbol of cultural diplomacy.
in September 1973, you would have witnessed the Philadelphia Orchestra become the first U.S. orchestra to perform in China, a milestone that made front-page news. And it’s not just orchestras: jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, and Dave Brubeck toured internationally with the U.S. State Department-sponsored America’s Jazz Ambassadors program beginning in the 1950s. Dancers from the Alvin Ailey company gave foreign audiences their first look at a uniquely American dance style beginning in the 1960s. In July 2009, the U.K.’s Royal Ballet Company became the first foreign ballet company to visit Cuba since the Bolshoi’s 1980 visit; the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and American Ballet Theater also visited Cuba this past October and November, and the New York Philharmonic hopes to visit Cuba this win-
ter, after receiving long-awaited permission from the U.S. Treasury Department. For orchestras and classical musicians, media-worthy tours to places like Cuba, Vietnam, and North Korea are just a small piece of what’s happening today with cultural diplomacy. Many American youth orchestras tour internationally, providing their young musicians with a life-changing experience as they learn about a foreign culture. Cultural diplomacy also encompasses more grassroots efforts by “citizen diplomats,” many of whose efforts are conducted closer to the ground and with much less public attention, everywhere from Iraq and Afghanistan to Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt. Daniel Barenboim (see sidebar, above) continues to take annual tours with his young musicians, who come from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt. Perhaps more
surprisingly, the definition of cultural diplomacy increasingly includes efforts to bring together disparate groups in our own diverse communities here in the U.S. Planned Meetings, Impromptu Encounters
Repeat visits by an orchestra to a foreign country can lay the foundation for establishing trust between two nations. They also give members of the orchestra a bird’s-eye view of economic and political changes over time, as percussionist Anthony Orlando can attest. Over more than three decades, he has been on four tours to China with the Philadelphia Orchestra. “In 1973 when we rode from the Beijing airport to the hotel,” he recalls, “the streets were lined almost every block for maybe ten or twenty miles, applauding the arrivals from America. It was very scripted. When we went to the Great Wall, we were the only ones there.” Orlando remembers China’s undeveloped city and road infrastructures in 1973, that there were “almost no cars” on the road, just buses and bicycles. In 1993, it seemed to him like “San Francisco during the gold rush,” with towers and cranes everywhere. The Philadelphia Or- “We don’t live chestra’s June 2008 visit in a melting took place less than a pot so much as month after the Sichuan earthquake, which spurred in some kind Phil Kates, a violinist with of crazy quilt the orchestra, to visit the where people badly damaged city of really don’t Mianzhu. Kates’s visit was covered in the Philadelphia mix,” says the Inquirer, and Kates wrote Sacramento about it in his own blog. At Philharmonic’s Hua Xi Hospital, where he Marc played for children, Kates wrote that “Regardless Feldman. “And of physical or emotional sometimes the condition (and some were orchestra can glum or rightfully angry be a wonderful at the state of their lives), each child had a smile on spot for it.” her face before I left the room. Any doubt I may have had as to the value of my making this trip evaporated at such moments.” Philadelphia Orchestra musicians also contributed $5,000 to an effort to build symphony
earthquake-proof schools and in 2010, when the orchestra toured China again, Kates and three other Philadelphians attended the dedication of the Philadelphia Orchestra Project Hope Classroom in the new Du Jiang Yan Tian Ma School in Dujiangyan, not far from Mianzhu. But this time, that side visit had the financial backing of the Pennsylvania Center, a division of Pennsylvania’s Department of Community and Economic Development, which works to establish relationships between China and Pennsylvania’s business community. One orchestra that has been successful in getting the business community to back its cultural diplomacy efforts is California’s Sacramento Philharmonic. In April 2008, the Philharmonic performed its first “Songs of Hope” concert in Sacramento, focusing on different aspects of the shared cultures of the U.S., Egypt, and Israel and featuring performers, composers, and instruments from all three countries. The lead sponsor for the concerts was the Delegata Corporation, an international e-business and technology consulting company based in Sacramento, whose CEO is Egyptian businessman Kais Menoufy. Sacramento Philharmonic Executive Director Marc Feldman says building bridges has become “a personal issue” for him, particularly here in our own U.S. communities. “We don’t live in a melting pot so much as in some kind of crazy quilt, where people really don’t mix,” says Feldman. “And sometimes the orchestra can be a wonderful spot for it.” For the 2008 concert, he notes, “We had a Palestinian, an Israeli, an Egyptian, an American. It’s getting people together who normally wouldn’t be together. The people that were the most interested in coming to the concert were the Muslims in our community.” More recently the orchestra has presented programs focusing on Russianspeaking and Armenian immigrant communities in the Sacramento area. “Even if it’s a drop in the bucket,” says Feldman, “there’s a philosophy behind it for orchestras these days: we’re all searching for relevancy, for something beyond the ivory tower of the symphony orchestra. To make an orchestra into a cultural meeting place has become important to both Music Director Michael Morgan and myself. With all the discussion these days about the Muslim community, there is a lot of distrust. But there are also a lot of people who don’t believe in that disamericanorchestras.org
trust. This has become a forum for people who say, ‘You see, we can get together in our community.’ ” Young Idealists
Young musicians are at the heart of several grassroots cultural-diplomacy efforts. In 2010, violinist Mikhail Simonyan, a 24-year-old with Russian-Armenian roots, started holding fundraising concerts for his Beethoven Not Bullets project, which
is working to bring Western music back to Afghanistan by sponsoring young musicians to study music at the Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul. Simonyan’s immediate goal is to sponsor 50 music students for one year, at a cost of $360 per student. Most of that cost goes to replace income the children bring their families by selling newspapers or candy on the street. “By getting them into the school,” says Simonyan, “what we are doing is the education of the next
The U.S. may make a few more friends around the world, thanks to improved visa-processing times for foreign musicians touring the U.S. In July, officials at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services promised that average processing times for regularly filed artist visa petitions will not exceed 14 days. Previously, approvals had taken up to 120 days to process, an obstacle for orchestras and other organizations seeking to engage foreign guest artists. The League of American Orchestras was among the organizations leading efforts to improve the visa process. More information is available at the Artists From Abroad website and by contacting the League’s government affairs office.
generation. What are these kids seeing in their lives? Dead bodies, bullets, and fighting and shooting and killings and screamings, and just pretty much living in hell. We are providing them with something completely different and pure, which is music.” When it comes to young U.S. orchestra musicians, international youth-orchestra tours present opportunities that are virtually “built for goodwill,” says League Vice President for Advocacy Heather Noonan. Last summer, Steven Payne, executive director of Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, took his most advanced musicians on a two-week tour of China, where they performed in Beijing, Shanghai, Hangzhou, and Hong Kong. Payne says these trips take place every two to three years and are “an incredible motivator” for the kids. The kids in the less advanced orchestras figure out when the next scheduled tour is going to be, what age they might be, and plan to go. Payne cautions that for youth orchestras it’s important for the concert experiences to be “phenomenal,” and there’s “got to be a way for them to meet other kids from that country. “It also dawned on us,” says Payne, “that there is a whole potential of the business community wanting to associate themselves with kids doing a positive thing—a huge pride factor in the community.” Local newspapers ran stories about the trip, and some musicians, like sixteen-year-old violinist Michael Vybiral, blogged about the tour. “The question people always have,” says
Payne, “is ‘These tours are great, but are they really necessary? It’s very expensive.’ I had those same doubts myself before I went on these trips with the kids, and saw the change it made in them.” Payne says the orchestra is working to find ways to make it possible for more kids to apply for financial assistance, to create a compelling case for donors to sponsor individual students. One youth orchestra with a strong cultural-diplomacy focus is the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. Marc Thayer, the SLSO’s vice president for education and community partnerships, runs a program for music students from Iraq to study and live in the U.S. The program is run in partnership with St. Louis University, which gives fulltuition scholarships for the students to come and be part of the ESL program. The students perform in the string orchestra at the university, which Thayer conducts, and also are members of the Saint Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra. “They don’t have advanced schools available” in Iraq, says Thayer, meaning students cannot advance past a certain level without some kind of assistance or intervention. “They’re literally prisoners in their own country. Without outside support they cannot get a student visa or a tourist visa to go just about anywhere outside of the Middle East, because these countries are concerned they won’t return home.” During his summers, Thayer also works with an organization called American Voices, a nonprofit that trains young musicians in what it calls “post-conflict areas” of the world. Like San Antonio’s Payne, Thayer sometimes has had to defend the work he is doing with orchestras and musicians in Iraq. “I’ve had people ask me, if we don’t have enough electricity and the daily needs that we all assume we need, why are these people studying music and art? Why are they spending time on these extracurricular or luxury items? And I say, that’s often the best part of their lives—the only beauty they have in their life.” Dollars and Cents
When the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq met for the first time in the summer of 2009, they rehearsed in a building in the Kurdish capital of Erbil where Peshawar guards—the Kurdish military—marched up and down the halls with AK47s. Daunting and valid as such security concerns are, almost equally challenging for that orchestra symphony
Two young Lebanese musicians at one of the summer youth academies run by the nonprofit American Voices program in summer 2010 in Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria.
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is getting funding, a difficulty that is shared by most organizations engaged in cultural diplomacy. Paul MacAlindin, a native of the U.K. who serves as NYOI’s music director, has been able to drum up enough support for the 42-member chamber orchestra to rehearse and perform in Iraq for a two-week pe“What are riod during the past two these kids in summers. The musicians Afghanistan are aged 14 to 29. The seeing? NYOI, the brainchild of 18-year-old Iraqi pianist Dead bodies, bullets—pretty Zuhal Sultan, convened in 2010 for rehearsals much living in and a concert with fundhell. We are ing from the Kurdish providing them Regional Government, with something the British Council, and Germany’s Goethe Incompletely stitute. different and Fundraising, says MacAlindin, has been pure, which is especially difficult in the music,” says recession; lack of funds is violinist Mikhail the reason the orchestra Simonyan. has not toured yet. But the primary goal, he says, is to improve the level of playing and teaching in a country where “most young musicians’ lives can be summed up as sitting at home, playing alone with no teacher” americanorchestras.org
after top music teachers fled in 2003. The two-week sessions in 2009 and 2010 took place in Kurdistan, chosen because it is safer than southern Iraq. In 2010, among the attendees at the final concert were the prime minister of the Kurdish Regional Government, several of his ministers, plus members of the British Council, the British Ambassador, and assorted VIPs. “In terms of bringing Kurds and Arabs together,” says MacAlindin, “they could see the potential of allowing this orchestra to flourish—to be a symbol of the reconciliation between these two groups, and also a possibility for dialogue with other countries.” Beyond diplomacy, there is great satisfaction for MacAlindin in regaining the trust of Iraqis: “A lot of people simply didn’t apply at all, because they never believed the orchestra would happen. They thought it was another fairy tale. They’re very used to organizations coming in and saying, ‘Yes, we will set this up for you.’ And then the money disappears down some official’s back pocket, and it never happens.” Applications from musicians wanting to play with the orchestra nearly doubled in 2010 over 2009—from 53 to 97. Funding was one of two big hurdles for the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra to go to Cuba this October, following an invitation from the Cuban Music Institute in late 2009. JALC Executive Director Adrian Ellis calls the trip the culmination of a longtime dream, possible only with permis-
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Troy Peters, music director of the Youth Orchestras of San Antonio, signs autographs at the Shangmao School in Hangzhou, China, during July 2010 tour.
sion from the U.S. Treasury, and then with funding from five foundations. Among the things he hoped the trip would achieve, Ellis says, were to have “great music generated by the interaction between Cuban and American musicians; the opportunity to reinvigorate what would have been historical musical connections over the years; and an increased public awareness of those connections and their importance.” Projecting Demographic Diversity
Aimee Fullman, an international arts and cultural policy consultant with American Voices, says support in the last five years for cultural-diplomacy programs has been “really tough, tougher than it’s ever been.” John Ferguson, executive director of American Voices, emphasizes the importance of “sustained engagement, not one-off concerts and masterclasses,” while acknowledging the funding difficulties associated with these long-range programs. Instead of American Voices’ ten-day-long summer YES academies, “I wish we were doing a nine-month program,” he says. Fullman says that many of the larger national programs supporting this kind of work have withdrawn from it, and that there hasn’t been anyone stepping in to take their place. Fullman feels that the “key to fundraising for this kind of work” will be the broadening of the definition of international arts exchange to include things that arts groups are doing with diverse communities in the U.S. The heyday has passed for U.S. government funding of big cultural-diplomacy tours, exemplified by programs such as Jazz Ambassadors, which sent big stars around
the world at the height of their fame in the 1950s. Still, says Fullman, even at levels that are drastically reduced from then, the government “funds a lot, more than we can even record. It’s important that they do support it to some extent. Our entire system of arts funding is a matching-grant model. It’s a leveraging model, a public-private partnership.” Fullman, who worked last summer with American Voices’ YES academies in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, says, “I can tell you from being in the field: people love jazz. But they don’t only love jazz. They love hiphop. But they don’t only “People love love hip-hop, either. Our string program last sum- jazz—but they mer was more robust than don’t only love our jazz program! I think jazz. They love in general across the board, hip-hop—but that the United States is not doing a very good job they don’t only of connecting to its im- love hip-hop. mense demographic di- Our string versity and thinking about program last our changing audiences at home and how that con- summer was nects to cultural-diplomacy more robust work internationally.” than our jazz As in other areas of the program!” says arts, funding is generally dependent on being able Aimee Fullman. to demonstrate public impact. For Sacramento’s Marc Feldman, the simplest indicator of public impact was that the first “Songs of Hope” concert sold 67 percent of the house, while for the symphony
second concert three nights later attendance went up to 80 percent. The orchestra’s concerts and panel discussions got a fair amount of press, too, including a local PBS documentary and a spot on TV news. “Funders do like to know that they’re being talked about,” says Feldman. Behind every orchestra or musician struggling to keep these cultural diplomacy efforts afloat during a notoriously challenging funding climate is a passionate spokesperson. Motivations range widely, though perhaps the one common goal is the quest for relevancy in a rapidly changing world. For violinist Mikhail Simonyan, cultural diplomacy is all about what he terms the “healing power of music” and “soft-power operations” that can bring music to children in war-torn Afghanistan. For Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Ellis, jazz is particularly effective when it comes to cultural diplomacy, “both because its origins are uniquely American and because of its social history, and because of the metaphors that are built into the music. It’s a powerful diplomatic tool for America.” For NYOI’s Paul
MacAlindin, it’s about helping Zuhal Sultan, a “teenager who wants to change the world,” achieve her dream of a youth orchestra in Iraq. For San Antonio’s Steven Payne and Saint Louis’s Marc Thayer, who have to struggle with assumptions that music and arts are luxury items, it’s about finding ways to help young musicians from the U.S. and from abroad have a lifechanging experience, and giving members of their own communities something to be proud of. For the New York Philharmonic’s Zarin Mehta, it’s about using music to “give a different dimension of peoples” and changing the “prototypical attitude and opinion of Americans.” Meanwhile, in California, Feldman is working to bring the Sacramento Philharmonic to Egypt and Israel—an expensive proposition that has been on hold since the recession hit. That hasn’t dampened Feldman’s enthusiasm for the orchestra’s continued work in Sacramento. For its “Fire and Romance” concerts in October 2010, Feldman says some members of the target Russian-speaking and Armenian communities
were “very, very conservative. I’ll be blunt: some of them don’t stand for the things that we might personally stand for. But Michael Morgan said, ‘All the more! If you really want to build community, let’s hook up with them.’ And music can be that spot where we all get together and agree that we can celebrate their culture. We don’t have to celebrate what they think politically, but we can celebrate their culture and bring them into the community.” As to the larger question of whether you can create peace through music, says Feldman, “All I can say is, yes, for an evening you can!” JENNIFER MELICK is managing editor of Symphony.
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