Cultures In Harmony – Musicians As Cultural Ambassadors

Written by Ilona in Grenzüberschreitend translated from my post in German for Naxos, Germany.

Many people consider themselves as an idealist or even an activist. Being more or less committed – of course to varying degrees – to some social, cultural or political cause or issue helps the process of finding one own identity and becoming conscious of one own humanitarian responsibility.

It is easy to underestimate the joy about sharing that comes from one’s own personal enthusiasm. For many it is also the acknowledgment being received from the immediate social setting that is as much a motivating factor as is the effort to keep a certain tradition alive.

The project of the young musician and Julliard graduate William Harvey entitled “Cultures in Harmony” will be featured here as a fascinating example of such a personal commitment and is very special indeed in regards to making a difference by involving creative thinking, and, of course, unusual dedication thus making a difference through and with of music.

Cultures in Harmony musicians as cultural ambassadors

“Cultures in Harmony” is the name of the New York based organization he founded shortly after the tragic 9/11 events. It aims at tearing down cultural and national barriers by means of the universal language of art (and in particular through music). Inspired by a spirit of cooperation, geared specifically at cooperating with the respective local musicians it doesn’t really matter whether these classical musicians are in the Philippines, Mbira players in Zimbabwe or Kanun virtuosi from Turkey. Crucial is the concept of shared positive experience that serves as the basis for improving mutual relations.

Based on mutual respect “Cultures in Harmony” aims at fostering dialogue on various levels with the people of the respective host country. Specific attention is always given to supporting democratic ideals.

For example, for the very first time the participation of female musicians was made possible as part of a traditional Dervish-ceremony in Konya and in that part of Turkey (despite of a 700 year tradition to the contrary) Small changes can lead up to bigger ones. It is about setting a precedent that widens the cultural horizons and establishes positive relations.

Events included charity concerts for UNICEF in Zimbabwe as well as composition courses for youth in the Philippines, Mexico and Tunisia.

For the musicians who travel all over the world and participate in very different projects it is about to encourage hope, establish friendships and reduce prejudices by means of performance and showcasing their talents.

And it is such a personal experience William Harvey talks about: even before former US president Bush’ visit to Turkey Harvey visited pretty anti-American leaning Turkey in 2004 as part of a US based Muslim-initiative: While having dinner at the home of a Turkish Oud player the conversation did not really advance. Everybody was on his own until I discovered a violin and started to play. The Oud player followed up and the atmosphere lightened up until we finally played together. Music really bridged every divide. That was an unbelievable experience.”

I hadn’t seen the young man whom a common acquaintance had told me about it. I organized to meet with him at the Clinton Street bakery in downtown. Even though I knew his facebook profile, which quite often /in many cases tells you quite a lot about a person, but I had not yet seen him performing as a musicians nor talked with him personally. It was a link on his facebook page entitled “Paganini Caprice Challenge” where he could be seen – metaphorically speaking – jumping through the air with the violin in his hand that had made me curious. I wanted to find out what his activities were really all about.

image001 Cultures in Harmony musicians as ambassadors of culture) photo : Peter Schaaf

This challenge is about asking for support of his organization. He learns and plays one of the pieces respectively from the series of the difficult and virtuous pieces that are part of the repertoire. It is well understood that he plays expecting to receive a financial donation.

Active as well as passive sponsors are financing the project – quite like other charity events –. Generally speaking a funny idea of an unusual passionate, committed young musician.

When 9/11 happened I had just started my studies at Julliard. It was just the first week during freshman orientation he tells me while studying the menu. His violin case he had carried on his shoulder when entering the restaurant is now stored under his chair. He was at the very beginning of a very promising education that in many cases leads to a dream career. In any case this educational program is among the most recognized in the world and it is respectively hard to get admitted to. “Students are overly critical among each other and are in constant competition.” Without giving it much thought he ordered pancakes with much syrup. The recollection of his experiences as well as his communicative, engaging and serious personality is very appealing. You can feel that William will not find deeper satisfaction -something he strives for in life as well as in his art – by winning a variety of music competitions. Presumably he will not encounter it either on stage in the large concert halls, even though – being recognized as being highly talented – he had envisioned that possibility. When he returns to talking about the 9/11 events my memory haunts me. That very day and also the subsequent period, has remained quite clearly also in my memory as my 9/11, as if not so many years had passed since.

I see the clouds hanging over downtown as if it were today, the same place where we have coffee and I am quite sure that most New Yorker feel the same way. The atmosphere was so depressing, everybody felt the need of doing something, but everybody also felt absolutely helpless. Somebody said: Why don’t you send out some of your musicians so as give a little comfort. “This way a small group of three Julliard students met at this huge military building called the Amory in order to play as part of a quartet.  Usually used for antique shows and similar fairs the building was full of people waiting for news about their relatives. By reading the notes the three of us played music written for four instruments. People listened. Some were crying. Everybody was touched. I stayed on and continued playing when the others went home. They had already arrived before me and were exhausted. An army captain returning with his team totally exhausted from the rescue efforts asked me to play for his men. I played my whole repertoire that I had learned by heart: Bach B-minor Partita – Tchaikovsky concerto – Dvorak concerto – Paganini Caprice 1 and 17 Vivaldi Winter and Spring-Tchaikovsky Melody as well as some timeless melodies. Finally I asked, whether it would be o.k. to play the US national anthem and the captain of the 69th division agreed. This is how I came to play the anthem for 300 men of the 69th army division and grasped what it is all about to convey music to others.

William received the honorary medal of the regiment for his very personal effort. His essay, as captivating as his personal recollections, is about his experiences as an 18 year old right after 9/11 and has been published in a variety of publications. William was introduced to the public as one of the first among other artists by the radio and TV show “from the top” that introduces them to the American music business and also promotes them.

“Cultures of Harmony” is supported by some well-known corporations and foundations as well as by private sponsors. McGraw-Hill Companies, Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, Kevin and Pam Wolf and Susan and Gerald Slavet.

Also there is much positive reporting and acknowledgment about this remarkably active organization. But in the end all of this did not amount to provide Cultures in Harmony with a set budget or even with salaries. William Harvey will start teaching in Afghanistan in the coming semester.

For more information about “Cultures in Harmony” see: http://www.culturesinharmony.org/

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