Crossing continents

The I, Culture Orchestra builds relationships in eastern Europe.

As night fell on 11 September 1988 more than a quarter of Estonia's population - some 300,000 people - gathered in Tallinn's Song Festival Grounds. In defiance of the Soviet regime they began to sing patriotic songs, continuing all through the night. Music, for so long the province of authority, an instrument of propaganda, had been reclaimed in a political gesture that would eventually lead to independence - the Singing Revolution.

Whether we look to folk music, the Zeitopern of Weimar Germany or Rage Against The Machine, music's role in politics has most often been one of protest. Music has successfully subverted, challenged and rejected political authority, but for today's classical musicians this reactive commentary no longer seems enough. El Sistema in Venezuela are tackling social issues directly in their orchestral programmes, offering a practical opportunity for change; Daniel Barenboim has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for the work of his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Taking inspiration from both these organisations, a new musical initiative - the I, Culture Orchestra - hopes to build relationships among the post-Soviet nations of eastern Europe. Conceived and funded by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, the orchestra is the flagship cultural scheme of Poland's EU Presidency, a one million Euro project bringing together young Polish musicians and those from the Eastern Partnership countries - Armenia, Azerbaijan, Moldova, Belarus, Georgia, Ukraine - into a performing group that will tour to some of Europe's greatest concert halls this autumn.

"I don't remember who first approached me with this project, but my first answer was 'Absolutely no,' " recalls Artistic Director Pawel Kotla. "We are aiming to build a world-class youth orchestra like the Simon Bolivar Orchestra or the European Youth Orchestra, and have the challenge of achieving in just a few weeks what EYO have been working towards for 35 years."

Building bridges; crossing boundaries: such ideals have become the persistent refrain of contemporary cultural diplomacy, losing applied meaning with every repetition. Even a project as celebrated as Barenboim's is dogged by criticism - stories emerge of musicians from Israel and Palestine sharing a desk for two years without ever exchanging words - yet as a symbol the orchestra only continues to grow in resonance and political authority. It is this tension between symbolic and practical functions that frequently blights such schemes, too often offering philosophy where finance might be more to the point. It's a confusion addressed by I, Culture, if still not entirely absent from their credo.

"We do not consider the orchestra to be a political or diplomatic project, but an axiological one," explains Pawel Potoroczyn, head of the Institute. While placing the focus firmly on artistic priorities, it's an approach that seems at odds with the orchestral setup. I, Culture consciously unites musicians from the warring nations of Armenia and Azerbaijan, as well as colliding those from the restrictive regime of Belarus with Polish students - members of Europe's smartest private members club, the EU, and citizens of Europe's fastest-growing economy.

The Orchestra's home this year is Gdansk, whose shipyards provided the steel cradle for the Solidarity movement of the 1980s - a diplomatic symbol surely too potent to be accidental. The town's Solidarity Museum features a line of giant dominoes marked evocatively with the names of the regimes - Hungarian People's Republic, German Democratic Republic, Czech Socialist Republic - whose struggles for independence caught the wave of Polish revolution. For I, Culture's Polish students this may be history, but the questions asked by young Belarusian musicians during their visit to the shipyards - "Why did you fight Commnism?"/"Did free market democracy really provide more opportunities?" - were a reminder of the ongoing political developments of which I, Culture is surely a part.

Unlike the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, I, Culture has met with heartening support from participating nations. "Barenboim's orchestra was established despite Israel and Palestine, not in collaboration", Kotla argues. "Some of those players have to hide their participation, their names cannot even be published in the programme. All our students, even those from Belarus, came here with the official approval and support of their governments."

Yet there is still a diplomatic elephant lurking among all this international goodwill and cooperation: Russia, strikingly absent from the project. It's a subject that meets with evasive response; informal overtures were apparently made but collapsed, owing (it seems) to Russian unwillingness. Plans to tour to Moscow next year offer hope for a second phase in the orchestra's development, one that confronts this final and most charged of relationships, yet even in absence the legacy of Soviet rule remains; music might wistfully be the "communal language" of the scheme, but it is Russian that serves as the lingua franca among students, the linguistic scar of a former age.

Refusing to get tangled in political wranglings, the musicians themselves are articulate and deeply serious about the project. Relations among the orchestra are good; "We are not showing one another our sharp edges," Ukrainian leader Ostap Manko explains, adding that while religion and politics do make it to dinner-table debates, mostly the talk is of music. Talented, and proud to be so, for these young players from the Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia relations with Europe are a matter of desperate practicality rather than symbolism; their position outside the EU currently denies them many opportunities for study and performance freely available to their Polish colleagues.

Off-duty snatches of music from practice rooms include everything from Bach to the James Bond theme, but rehearsals for Szymanowski's Violin Concerto No. 1 expose the players's innate emotional response to the orchestral repertoire - new to many who have trained purely as soloists. Carefully chosen by Kotla and Guest Conductor Neville Marriner, the programme includes Shostakovich's charged Symphony No. 5 and Tchaikovsky's Voyevoda - music that speaks of East European tradition but also of political struggle and oppression.

This month, the orchestra is touring Europe, and I, Culture's musical priorities will have the opportunity to speak for themselves to audiences in London, Madrid and Brussels. But whether or not they succeed in these competitive arenas, Kotla is philosophical about the scheme. "Musically and socially the students have already learned so many new things to take back to their countries. If we finished the project now - no tour, no recording, no concerts - this already would be an achievement."

Back in the shipyards, Gdansk's three stern crosses - a monument to the 1970 shootings, Poland's terrible first step to freedom - watch over the construction of the new European Centre for Solidarity. "We don't just want to remind and educate," explains Centre head Basil Kerski, "we want to strengthen public debate and a culture of democracy." In reaching out so determinedly to the East, I, Culture seems intent on doing likewise, extending the cultural conversation beyond the echo-chamber of the EU, and establishing a dialogue - however abstract - with its neighbours. It's a project still taking fragile steps, but one heading in a brave and necessary direction. "Sometimes," says Kotla, "we in the EU have to understand how things look from the other side, that you cannot just impose freedom. We need to build democracy from within, however slowly."

Alexandra Coghlan is classical music critic of the New Statesman