How to Make It Big if You’re a Young Musician in Eastern Europe
small, How to Make It Big if You’re a Young Musician in Eastern Europe, I, Culture Orchestra, Kyiv, photo: Elwira Nowicka, i culture orchestra kijow 02_6058617.jpg
The challenges of making a career in classical music are considerable; if such a career is envisaged in an area fraught with political tension, they can be near insurmountable. For the 5th year in a row, the I, CULTURE Orchestra will bridge the gap between ambitions and opportunities for young classical musicians from Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, Poland and Ukraine
Those young musicians dream of recognition for their years of gruelling classical training, as well as opportunities to learn from the top names of their discipline, as every musician must in order not to stall her or his art. Too often, neither of these options are available in conditions where political issues leave little room for the development of culture.
Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are still on their way to recovery following the ravages of the Soviet Union and its brutal disintegration, and count many disputed territories where war could ignite in an instant. Poland is generally thought to have successfully overcome the weighty legacy of its Communist past, but this successful integration with the West does not preclude strong ties to its Eastern neighbours, and vice versa. While the threat of war looms on the horizon once again, this youth orchestra keeps the dialogue open, with music as a lingua franca.
The establishing of the youth orchestras, that is to say orchestras comprising musicians in their late teens and early twenties, has been quite popular in recent decades. Initially, their purpose was strictly educational, but soon the idea of forming professional-level youth ensembles spread, and so did their political implications. In 1999, two friends from Israel and Palestine - Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said - decided to form an orchestra composed of young musicians from both sides of the conflict. Despite hundreds of challenges the West Eastern Divan Orchestra showed that music can stand above any discord.
In 2010, during the preparations for the Polish Presidency of the European Union, the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, a state institution dedicated to promoting Polish culture, decided to follow this path. Thinking of the best ways to promote the Eastern Partnership - Poland’s initiative to create closer links between selected post-Soviet states and the European Union – the Institute came up with the idea of forming a youth orchestra composed of musicians from all seven countries involved.
With every edition of I,CULTURE Orchestra, its creators became more and more convinced of the project’s beneficial impact and outstanding artistic quality. But how exactly does one pull off such a utopian project?
It all starts with auditions held in partner countries and a selection of the most talented musicians aged 18 - 28. Next, the chosen are invited to Poland for several days of residency where they work on a repertoire, at the beginning in smaller groups under the tuition of professional musicians from world famous orchestras such as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Berlin Philharmonic or Philharmonia Orchestra. Having prepared their parts they move on to working as an entire orchestra (tutti rehearsals) lead by top-flight conductors (e.g. Neville Marriner, Kirill Karabits). After two weeks of intense rehearsal, they go on tour to perform in Western and Eastern Europe and present a wide and varied repertoire composed of best-known orchestral pieces, as well as compositions created by composers from the partner countries. Some of their performances were graced with appearances from some of the greatest living artists of present day classical music. For example, in 2013 Khatia Buniatishvili and Truls Mørk joined the orchestra while in 2014 these Alice Sara Ott and Simon Trpčeski also participated in the I,CULTURE Orchestra .
Classical music societies in smaller and less affluent states tend to be rather closed and seemingly self-sufficient. For example there is only one conservatory in Moldova and very few orchestras ever tour abroad. For a young musician, this means constantly working with the same group of people and being taught by a very limited number of professors. Meanwhile, searching for various inspirations and incentives is crucial in every field of artistic education. In other words, the I, CULTURE Orchestra is meant to lay the foundation for careers rich in international experience, thus creating a knowledge exchange profitable for all countries involved.
This role is often emphasized by project members. Kirill Karabits, celebrated Ukrainian conductor who led the orchestra in 2013 and 2014 editions (and who will be artistic director of the 2015 edition) said:
For me as a Ukrainian, Poland was always a country that encouraged Ukraine and other Eastern countries to come closer to Western Europe
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Kirill Karabits on I, CULTURE Orchestra from Culture.pl on Vimeo.
For some of the participants, I, CULTURE Orchestra is the very first opportunity to work in a professional international orchestra. Likewise, this allows them to work with world-renowned tutors, and to give them a taste of high-stress yet glamourous evenings spent playing among stars, in front of an audience comprising Europe’s top critics. Lia Rusu from Moldova, who took part in the 2014 edition, thus assesses her experience:
I've learned a lot of interesting things, not only for my career, but also for life. It is evident that the participation in the project makes other people look at me at a higher level, a fact that improves my goodwill and at the same time my professional skills, giving me new opportunities
This considerable human impact comes at a cost: every year, the organisers of the project have to fight the considerable red tape burden on both sides of the Schengen border. In 2014, two Georgian musicians were denied visas to the UK, and even all the combined efforts of the project managers left the Home Office unimpressed. The Ukrainian-Russian conflict also prevented several musicians from leaving Eastern Ukraine. Other Ukrainians wondered if, playing Shostakovich, they were not betraying their national allegiances. Azerbaijani and Armenian musicians feared that their reciprocal cooperation would be treated as treachery.
Furthermore, such an orchestra automatically raises several questions regarding its artistic output. What should matter first and foremost, the performances or the rehearsals, the process or the outcome, the sociopolitics or the music? Judging from the feedback they received, it certainly appears as if there was no compromising of musical quality for the sake of the high-minded the ideals involved.
The orchestra has grown more and more esteemed in classical circles, garnering rave reviews from several mainstream media. Conducted by the young but already acknowledged Kirill Karabits, who also serves as a role model for his orchestra members, they manage to deliver elite performances and reach for nuances which are rarely achieved by youth orchestras. The Guardian’s review of their concert at the Usher’s Hall in Edinburgh speaks for itself:
Certainly it is worth listening to for reasons beyond political tokenism. The Ukrainian conductor Kirill Karabits was a tremendously gracious guide: he kept the ensemble disciplined and encouraged expressive gestures but often he let the players find their own way
It goes without saying that the project also means the world to its participants. When this journalist asked them what they got out of it, the list went on and on: the atmosphere of pure joy, of working along people from opposing cultures, the chance to improve their musicianship with acclaimed professionals, and of course unforgettable memories. Linda Manoukian, an Armenian violinist, says she will never forget when the whole orchestra unexpectedly sang happy birthday to her after a concert in France.
These young voices are especially heart-warming at times when Cold War attitudes have resurfaced so unexpectedly. Now more than ever, it may be tempting to revert to dialectics of hard power and back away from cultural diplomacy, but surely there is little to be gained other than spiralling backwards into a more destructive past. To those who argue that there is nothing else to be done, I would recommend attending one of the upcoming concerts of I, CULTURE, and reconsidering their worldview while they enjoy the music.
I, CULTURE Orchestra is now accepting applications from musicians who would like to participate in the 5th edition of ICO. For more information, visit orchestra.culture.pl
Author: Wojciech Oleksiak, November 30th 2014.