Orchestras and cultural diplomacy

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By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

‘Where words fail, music speaks’ said Hans Christian Andersen, and it’s largely due to this transcendent quality that music is so commonly used for cultural diplomacy.  I’ve already written about how the American Jazz Ambassadors helped the US government develop influence abroad during the Cold War, how youth orchestras can help build peaceful communities, and in an upcoming post I’ll examine the corporate cultural diplomacy partnership between Deutsche Bank and the Berliner Philharmonic Orchestra.

I would like you to put aside any thoughts that you might have about orchestral concerts.   There is a great creative flexibility available when deploying an orchestra. Orchestras don’t have to be dressed in penguin suits, aren’t limited to concert halls, don’t have to play classical music and with well considered venues and carefully selected repertoire can appeal to a surprisingly diverse audience.  I experienced these things myself whilst working with orchestras over the years; I managed the national youth orchestra of Northern Ireland (known as the Ulster Youth Orchestra) and later took a lead role in producing the Adelaide Festival Centre’s award winning Beethoven Festival with the Australian Youth Orchestra.  At the Beethoven Festival I remember the packed foyer of the Festival Theatre having a distinctly rock concert vibe each evening before the performance –something that youth orchestras can provide and many professional orchestras can’t.

Which leads me to providing a list of why orchestras are great for cultural diplomacy.

1. Music is universal. People of all cultures make it and enjoy it, and it has the power to communicate across language boundaries;  where words fail, music speaks, as the saying goes

2. Orchestras are classy.  If you want to exhume class, align yourself with an orchestra like Credit Suisse and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

3. Concert repertoire can be tailored to the target audience and be chosen to deliver an intended message or image. When the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea in 2008, their repertoire embedded messages that promoted optimism, respect for humanity and individual freedoms

4. The repertoire might consist of existing works or a new musical work can be commissioned and performed; good for tailoring to your audience.  When the Ulster Youth Orchestra commissioned Conor Mitchell to compose a work, he based The Boy With Nails In His Eyes on a Tim Burton poem of the same name, to appeal to the more youthful audience

5. Music can be commissioned to commemorate a specific person or event, which is great for flattery (an important part of cultural diplomacy).  Beethoven originally composed his Third Symphony to honor Napoleon before having a change of heart, and Tchaikovsky‘s 1812 Overture celebrates Russia’s victory over Napoleon’s forces. More recently, the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra commissioned a work from Natalie Williams to commemorate the life of the famous cricketer, Sir Donald Bradman

6. An orchestral based cultural diplomacy activity can involve more events than simply a concert or series of concerts. Associated events might include VIP social functions, corporate hosting, workshops with local musicians, open rehearsals, pre-concert talks, related art exhibitions, post-concert parties and media interviews with the performers

7. The concerts and associated events will allow its organisers to access different groups of people.  Orchestral concerts have long been popular with political elites,  but orchestras have a range of tools that they often use to engage with children and youth, such as children’s concerts and youth music workshops

8. Orchestras themselves can be used to encourage cultural engagement between people of different nationalities, backgrounds and cultures. I have written previously about the West-Eastern Divan and the cultural engagement between it’s players

9. Orchestras can perform in a variety of venues, from concert halls to nightclubs and historic locations, providing flexibility

10. Orchestras can be scaled up or down in size to meet budgets

11. Orchestras can be scaled up or down in size to meet space availability, with the capacity to impress in a large space

12. Orchestras are acoustic which means they don’t need electricity to perform enhancing the choice of performance locations

13. Orchestral music has the capacity to ‘stir the soul’ more than any other music, offering a powerful way to get your message across.  When the New York Philharmonic visited North Korea audience members were moved to tears

14. Concerts can be recorded meaning radio broadcasts and releases of recordings can extend the life of the project; like a gift that keeps on giving

15. Costs can be offset by box-office receipts, sponsorship and advertising sales

16. Celebrity orchestras or performers, such as conductors, soloists or singers or can  build prestige, audience figures and PR mileage

17. Orchestral programs are sometimes jointly funded by a range of stakeholders that will often include governments – which can be a real bonus to the instigators if they are seeking to improve government relations

18. Orchestra based cultural diplomacy activities provide excellent opportunities to gain PR leverage. Every orchestra has many stories to tell and the media is often interested in these stories – they eat up tales about expensive instruments, for example.  Involving famous performers, hosting VIP evenings, undertaking youth music workshops also garner media attention.  Orchestra’s look good in newspapers, sound great on radio and come across well on TV.  Newly commissioned works, premieres, and exclusive performances always attract more attention

If you’d like to add to the list – please do so in the comments section below!

In coming posts to wherewordsfailblog.com I will detail some creative ideas that you can implement if you want to use an orchestra for cultural diplomacy purposes.  Often, touring orchestras themselves neglect the cultural diplomacy potential of their tours to build person-to-person links, and even those that do incorporate cultural diplomacy activities into their touring miss opportunities.

If you are interested in using corporate cultural diplomacy to build relationships abroad or discussing potential cultural diplomacy programs for orchestras, please get in touch with me.

I’d like to leave you today with a video, produced by Credit Suisse that features Rory Jeffes, Executive Director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra discussing their cultural diplomacy focus. Enjoy.

Read the follow-up post Beijing and Perth Orchestras put Corporate Cultural Diplomacy into action or Why I named my blog where words fail for more about my experiences with orchestras 

Photo credit listed on the next page.

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