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Classical Diplomacy

Interview: Jefferson ChaseMarch 5, 2008

The New York Philharmonic is hardly the only orchestra to have visited a "hostile" country. DW spoke to Jan Nast, orchestral director of Dresden's Staatskapelle, about whether music can build bridges between cultures.

The Staatskapelle is temporarily leaving the stately SemperoperImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

The tradition of "classical diplomacy" in Germany runs long and deep. In the 1970s and 1980s, Romanian-born conductor Sergiu Celibidache and the Munich Philharmonic were very active in Communist Eastern Europe and often enlisted by the West German government as cultural ambassadors.

Since 1999, the Argentina-born musical director of Berlin's State Opera House, Daniel Barenboim, has led the East-Western Divan Orchestra, which united Israeli and Palestinian musicians. In 2005, the Berlin Philharmonic made an extensive trip to China, which is the subject of a film released this week.

On Saturday, March 8, the Saechsische Staatskapelle Dresden -- Saxony's state orchestra -- is scheduled to perform an all-Wagner concert in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. DW-WORLD.DE spoke to orchestra director Jan Nast about high culture and the everyday task of creating cultural understanding.

DW-WORLD.DE: Can music really be a tool of peace or dialogue, or is that just empty idealism?

Principal conductor Fabio Luisi during an orchestra performance
Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi will lead the orchestraImage: Matthias Creutziger

Jan Nast: That's a very difficult question. I'm convinced that music can definitely connect people, because I think listening to something and deciding whether you like it or not is a common denominator. So I also think that a concert can bring people who have different politics or religions a bit closer to one another.

In Abu Dhabi, the Staatskapelle has chosen an all-Wagner program. Leaving aside the fact that Wagner was once the principle conductor of the orchestra, why focus on a relatively difficult composer for an audience that may be unfamiliar with classical music?

There are at least three reasons. I've been in contact with Abu Dhabi for quite some time, and via the German embassy there, a lot of my e-mails ended up at a Richard Wagner society, which had just been founded. It was the first society of its kind in the Arab world, and when they saw e-mails from the Staatskapelle Dresden they said, "Hey, that Richard Wagner's orchestra."

Also, one of the organizers is doing a PhD on Wagner and Romanticism, so there was a lot of enthusiasm about initiating a large-scale project with us.

And the third reason was that people told us that the romantic aspects of Wagner -- the themes of forbidden or fatal love in his operas -- might represent a level on which young Arabs could be motivated to come to a classical concert and listen to music that's otherwise culturally foreign to them.

Music from the Arab world has very different harmonies and structures as compared to European classical music. European classical music must sound quite bizarre in some Arab ears.

"Emirates Palace" hotel
The concert will take place at the luxury "Emirates Palace"Image: picture-alliance/ dpa

Yes, you're right. Music from the Arab world is completely different. It's constructed differently, the musical language is different, and so are the harmonies. Nonetheless, I think that the structures of Romanticism, how the individual notes interact with one another, are similar to those in Arab music.

And then there's the content. We're working with three universities in Abu Dhabi. Beginning last week, there have been lectures on Romanticism, on Richard Wagner, on Wagner's career in Dresden and on specific themes from the operas. I hope that this constellation will lure people to the concert who've never heard such music before and will perhaps be surprised that it's not bad at all. Even though they've never heard anything like it.

The New York Philharmonic's trip to North Korea attracted lots of headlines. But it wasn't the first event of its kind, was it?

East-Western Divan Orchestra
Daniel Barenboim's East-Western Divan Orchestra is another political projectImage: AP

No, especially on the German landscape, there have been many politically active orchestras. It's something of a tradition. I can remember that in the 1980s German presidents often traveled with the Munich Philharmonic and helped set up concert dates for the purpose of bridging political gaps -- in order to pave the way for possible political negotiations afterward. And we at the Staatskapelle, too, have often undertaken mediating roles in the past.

It's a different context, but one week after Hurricane Katrina, we went to New Orleans and gave a concert called "Music Helps." We couldn't bring the people there lots of money, but we could encourage them not to give up in a dire situation.

We have also been planning to do something for years with Korea -- through our ongoing cooperation with Korean conductor Myung-Whun Chung, whose mother is from the North. Especially as an orchestra from the eastern half of what was once a divided country, we could transmit a very positive message about what it's like to be reunited after so many years. The New York Philharmonic grabbed the limelight somewhat, but the message remains -- and it is perhaps one that only we can communicate.

On the other hand, Abu Dhabi is hardly North Korea. It's a wealthy oil emirate that's currently investing huge sums to attract Western culture. Are there other advantages to working there?

Nast with Arab official
Orchestra director Jan Nast checks out Abu Dhabi's ambitious plansImage: picture-alliance/Bildfunk

Certainly. At the moment, all the leading cultural institutions are closely watching the United Arab Emirates, because the UAE is clearly planning to orient itself toward Western culture in the coming years. Having looked at the architectural projects in Abu Dhabi, I would say they're aiming to become a six-star cultural travel destination -- in contrast to the five-star mass tourism resorts being built in some of the other emirates. The newly constructed "cultural island" [Saadiyat Island] is unbelievable. The world's most important museums have branches there; a beautiful and presumably acoustically excellent performing-arts center is being built, and the whole location will become something like a year-round arts festival.

So it's natural that big cultural institutions like the Louvre, the British Museum or the Guggenheim use it to stock up their domestic finances. And one thing is true -- if you want to see the best of the old masters and modern artists, and hear the finest in music, there's going to be only one place in the world, and that's there. That's their very ambitious goal.

So you plan on continuing to work in Abu Dhabi?

That will depend on whether the concert is as successful as we think and hope it will be. Our goal is to leave a lasting impression so that people are exciting about experiencing classical music. After that, we'll see. But there's no reason, after the opera house there is completed, why we couldn't stage the first complete cycle of Wagner's Ring operas in the Arab world.