The subtle voice of cultural diplomacy

Eugene Ormandy stands next to Li Delun, Music Director of the Central Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Great Wall of China during the Philadelphia Orchestra’s historic 1973 tour. Photo © The Philadelphia Orchestra Association Archives

Government support of the arts, and music in particular, has never been noteworthy in the United States. By Florian Riem

The venerable National Endowment of the Arts, almost eliminated by the 45th President, has an annual budget of only about 25% of what the city of Berlin alone is spending in one year. Recently, however, another branch of the US government, Antony Blinken´s embattled Department of State, has taken a special interest in music.   

Announced back in September, his little publicised  Global Music Diplomacy Initiative endorses “music to meet the moment, convey American leadership globally and create connections with people worldwide”. Through public-private partnerships with American companies and non-profits, the department has sent, among others, jazz icons Herbie Hancock and Dee Dee Bridgewater to Jordan and the Philadelphia Orchestra on a tour to China, with residency activities in multiple cities. The performances were held on the 50th anniversary of the orchestra ́s historic 1973 tour, the first such project of a major Western orchestra to the People’s Republic of China.

Cultural diplomacy, of course, has been around much longer. Leonard Bernstein, for example, took the New York Philharmonic to the Soviet Union in 1959, during the nascent days of diplomatic relations between the two nations, 30 years before the Wall came down. A year earlier, the American pianist Van Cliburn had won the First Tchaikovsky Competition, becoming a hero both in the Soviet Union and back home in the United States, preparing the ground for a new approach in international relations between the two superpowers.

In 2008, the New York Philharmonic and Lorin Maazel, its Music Director at the time, flew to Pyongyang in North Korea, for what seemed a highly unlikely event, a project that would almost certainly be cancelled, like the countless efforts that had failed before. But while the concert took place and is rather well documented, the question of what the New York Philharmonic actually achieved by this visit has been raised perennially. Due to a lack of visible results, the tour has often been criticised as being meaningless and a complete waste of money. On the other hand, it has been hailed by many as an extraordinary success and door opener between the two estranged countries.

Music and the arts cannot stop wars or reconcile willful separation of people. But in the right circumstances, it can contribute to dialogue and a sense of good will. It can help create an atmosphere where people and countries in conflict might stop for a moment, take a breath and find some common ground. As Asaf Avidan, the Israeli singer and songwriter, said recently: “The greatest danger today is that we fall into a purely black and white picture. As the world becomes increasingly complex, we look for the simplest answers and we listen only to those who provide simple answers. Music, so to speak, is the antithesis of that: on one hand it is easy to listen to, but on the other hand it offers many, many answers to a lot of questions. Although there is only one sender of each message, there are many recipients in the audience. Music evokes in us different answers to the many questions that exist, and a musical message can carry a different colour, providing a different meaning for you than it does for me.”