Harmony in diversity: The EU’s Youth Orchestra set to show the UAE that music is a universal language

The European Union Youth Orchestra will make their Middle Eastern debut as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival.

The acclaimed Russian conductor, Vladimir Ashkenazy. Courtesy Keith Saunders
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An orchestra is said to be similar to a large unruly family. Imagine leading one comprising 28 nationalities aiming to represent one continent.

It was a challenge Marshall Marcus undertook when appointed as the chief executive and creative director of the European Union Youth orchestra in January last year.

Marcus describes his role as akin to a diplomat. “It is a tremendous yet enjoyable challenge,” he says. “My job is to keep the relationships going with the European Union, which is based in Brussels, and all the countries who are all involved with the orchestra.”

Founded in 1976, the London-based orchestra was forged with a mission to represent the European ideal of countries working together as one body.

Additionally, the ensemble is a high-profile vehicle for countries to showcase and develop their classical music talent and traditions.

It is the balance of these two aspects that gives the orchestra a special lustre, Marcus states.

“At the end of the Second World War when the European Union began, the idea was for different European countries to say: ‘Why don’t we join together rather than make war with each other?’” he says.

“So the idea for this orchestra is for people to come together from different places and be together, which is really a metaphor for what an orchestra is anyway.”

The European Union Youth Orchestra’s next destination will be its Middle Eastern debut as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. The Emirates Palace performance will be conducted by the acclaimed Russian conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy.

As “cultural ambassadors for Europe”, Marcus says the group’s Abu Dhabi performance is an important hallmark in its history.

“For one thing, we are working with the [festival organisers] Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Foundation, which has a similar feeling about the importance of the arts culturally and socially,” he says.

“It is also a chance to open up a new set of relationships with the UAE.”

While the orchestra is obliged to have a member from each of the 28 countries representing the European Union, Marcus says the bar remains high for those wishing to join the ensemble.

In a process Marcus describes as “similar to the Olympics”, applicants between the ages of 14 and 24 are invited annually to undergo both local and regional auditions, before committing to a year of international performances.

With players flying in from respective nations to either rehearse or perform, Marcus says concert dates are picked carefully to ensure the best possible performance.

“That is the challenge really, in that when we come together we really have to make it work.

“Also, we never like to do really big performances, like the one coming up in Abu Dhabi, before doing a residency to give us a chance to gel. So before we arrive in the UAE we will do a bunch of performances in Thessaloniki in Greece.”

Despite French being the dominant language in European diplomacy, the orchestra conducts its rehearsals and performances in English. Marcus says the language has now become the lingua franca of the classical music community.

“It is the language that many musicians now want to learn. They know there is universal usage and if they want to travel around the world then this is the language they would need.”

That said, with such an international ensemble, some meanings have been lost in translation.

“I remembered we had a Romanian player who read the programme where it said ‘28 countries, one language’,” Marcus recalls. “Now what we meant was the one language of music. He got worried and apparently went to one of the people in our office and said: ‘That’s English, right?’”

• Vladimir Ashkenazy and the European Union Youth Orchestra perform at Emirates Palace on Monday, at 8pm. Tickets begin at Dh125 from tickets.virginmegastore.me