United Strings of Europe: beyond the concert hall

Julian Azkoul from United Strings of Europe on music as a cultural bridge: reaching out beyond the concert hall. 

In my role as artistic director of the United Strings of Europe, an international ensemble recognised for its original programming and refined performances, I have sought to develop opportunities where we could share our passion for ensemble playing with audiences beyond the concert hall.

Our experience in Lebanon working with a range of NGOs inspired us to establish a programme in London and Essex working with refugees, asylum seekers and low-income participants that includes musical content, but also explores the values that underpin ensemble playing and effective teamwork and cooperation. Initially our outreach activities were geared towards students in primary and secondary schools, encouraging a greater uptake of instrumental tuition and offering students a chance to hear and meet professional musicians.

Our first trip to Lebanon in May 2017 saw us work with orphans and deprived populations under the aegis of the US embassy’s #Respect programme, and we were challenged to think about how our work as a professional ensemble could relate to people from very distinctive backgrounds. Having to explain and even defend one’s practice to a group who may have never experienced classical music or met professional musicians before encouraged us to think more deeply about our practice. These sessions proved to be a forum for genuine exchange: participants were encouraged to ask probing questions and we got a chance to learn more about their experiences and backgrounds.

United Strings of Europe workshop
United Strings of Europe workshop

As an ensemble we have honed a particular ethos and effective way of working together, and I became very interested in how this process had developed organically over time. What components and conditions should be nurtured to ensure a successful working environment? How can we sustain trust in a group, where input is sought from all members and the free flowing of ideas is ensured? We came to realise that valuing one another’s experience and contributions, respecting differences of opinion and forging compromise together, were all elements key to our success.

We also came to appreciate how valuable discussions and demonstrations of these values could be for participants who never or rarely get a chance to experience a professional ensemble in the flesh or to think about aspects of interpersonal relationships in a professional setting. Refugees face challenging circumstances in their host countries with limited resources to support their integration, and asylum seekers cannot work until their refugee status is confirmed (in the UK asylum seekers are provided with housing but are only given £37.75 (€44.75) per week to cover other expenses). When it is a challenge to provide the bare necessities, engagement with the arts is often deemed a luxury that a community or the state simply cannot afford.

United Strings of Europe concert
United Strings of Europe concert

Alongside our New Horizons concert series at London’s Conway Hall, we have partnered with local organisations Together Productions and Freedom from Torture to provide workshops for refugees, asylum seekers and low-income residents of London and Tilbury, Essex. This is where the HMT Empire Windrush docked in 1948 with over one thousand migrants from the West Indies.

Thanks also to support from Arts Council England, we are able to provide new experiences to these communities and they can engage with our art form and have a conversation about the values that underpin our work and their attempts to forge better lives in the UK.

As a performing musician and curator of musical events, these experiences feed into broader questions about the rapport between performers and their audience. The interactive settings of our workshops have helped us realise that a performance’s success is not only a product of the artist’s expertise and delivery. Re-imagining the relationship between artist and audience as a powerful feedback loop can help ensure a performance is moving and memorable for all involved.

United Strings of Europe present Unfinished Journey, a programme of music by composers with immigrant backgrounds, at Conway Hall, London, on Saturday 1 February – with special guest soprano Héloïse Werner. Then on Monday 3 February, the group will lead a workshop with refugees and asylum seekers for Together Productions at Palmers College in Grays, Essex at 8:30 PM. Further info and tickets here