Orchestras aren't about "peace"

I’ve been trying to figure out just what exactly bugs me so much about this:

Music can change the state of the world, stop conflict and bloodshed, and bring peace to war-torn regions. If that sounds far-fetched then you haven’t met Russia’s famed maestro Valery Gergiev.

“The power of music can be (a) very quiet power because your heart feels happy. Beautiful music makes you maybe a better person. Maybe a better person will think twice before supporting a military solution, before seeing yet another conflict,” Gergiev said before conducting the World Orchestra for Peace, which performed Tuesday for the first time in an Arab country, the United Arab Emirates. “Instead of living in this troubled world we will find a way to share the sea, to share the sunlight.”

The 75 musicians performing represented at least 62 international orchestras and 30 countries. To have representatives of many nations seated together on stage sends what Gergiev hopes is a transformative message.

“You start to feel that people find it easy to build relationships immediately, of course through music,” Gergiev, who is also the artistic and general director of the Mariinsky Theatre, said. “We don’t have to tell each other ‘Look we need peace.’ We bring it. Just the very fact of our arrival is already a fanfare for peace.”

I have met Gergiev, as it happens. And I still don’t believe this.Maybe it’s just remembering the uses to which music was put in Germany six decades or so ago.

Hitler spent years in Vienna (home of both the first and second Viennese School, lest we forget) listening to some of the great music ever written (and conducted, at least on a few occasions, by one of the greatest Jewish conductors ever to have converted to Catholicism). It left him with a desire to exterminate millions of people. If music is such a force for peace and tolerance, why were over a third of the members of the Vienna Phil members of the Nazi Party?

Great art is many things. One the evidence, though, it does not appear to be morally transformative. Believing that an orchestra of top-flight players travellng to a resource-rich monarchy to play 90 minutes of music to advertise said monarchy as a place of tolerance, respect and enlightenment is about “peace” is simply to legitimate the use of music as propaganda.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

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  • From time to time I get a chance to re-watch The Shawshank Redemption, and I have to laugh every time I come across the scene with the Marriage of Figaro duet because “what those two Italian ladies were singing about,” if I recall, is how much they can’t stand each other while pretending to make nice.
    Still, I think there’s a point there; music does embody something free, maybe because anybody with a voice can make it (quality self-judgments aside). Like most good things it can be perverted for evil, since music lovers are equal to any other slice of humanity and some, like your example, are even odious. It can shine a light in dark places, which I hope is the de facto result if not the stated purpose of something like the NY Phil’s trip to North Korea or this foray into the Middle East — and reading the rest of the article, this is only one of many international venues for this orchestra. There may be political self-congratulating going on but I am not certain it is the kind of “advertisement” you suggest.
    I find it interesting too that the Gospels credit Jesus himself with saying, “I have not come to bring peace on earth, but a sword…” to divide households against one another, etc. It does us well to remember that peace is not merely an absence of conflict, but sometimes the road to eventual peace begins by kicking the wasp’s nest (I’m thinking of Shostakovich).
    To summarize my rambling, I don’t think either of you is wrong…

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