Can the Sarajevo Philharmonic hang on?

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The World

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — During the worst days of the Bosnian war, when the city of Sarajevo was under continual siege, members of the city’s philharmonic orchestra practiced in the freezing cold by candlelight and dodged sniper bullets to attend rehearsals.

Times have certainly changed. On Feb. 19, the elegantly dressed orchestra — full now of fresh, young faces — took to the gilded stage of Bosnia’s National Theater to perform Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to an audience of well-heeled Sarajevans.

During the nearly four-year-long siege, from 1992 to 1996, as snipers and shells terrorized the population, the Sarajevo Philharmonic played on, becoming in the process a symbol of the city’s determination and bravery.

Today, threats faced by the orchestra are of a more mundane nature: the challenges of staying financially afloat and building new audiences in a post-Communist era of scant state support for classical music.

American conductor Charles Ansbacher, who conducted the Feb. 19 concert, has been working with the Sarajevo Philharmonic since the war. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ansbacher’s wife, Swanee Hunt, as the American ambassador to Austria. The former conductor of the Colorado Springs Symphony, Ansbacher arrived in Vienna planning to immerse himself in that city’s rich cultural scene.

Instead, he found himself drawn to Bosnia, where he decided to help in the only way he knew how, through music. Over the last decade and a half, Ansbacher has worked with orchestras in a number of transitional and post-conflict societies and says music is a "universal language of emotion" that is particularly resonant in difficult times. To watch a video about Ansbacher's pursuits in Beirut, click here.

In Bosnia, he and his wife helped organize new instruments for the philharmonic members and organized for the orchestra to play in Austria.

“From then to now, obviously the orchestra has gotten enormously better,” Ansbacher says, recalling how, in his early visits, there used to be a sign warning that no weapons were allowed on stage. “At first, we wondered if it was strange to be bringing gifts of cellos and violins to a place that didn’t have food or water.” But, in the end, they decided, it was as important to nurture the soul as the body. “The idea was to lift the spirit.”

Today, the challenges facing the Sarajevo Philharmonic are more in tune with those facing other classical music institutions around the world. In Bosnia, as in other post-Communist countries, the massive state infrastructure that once supported classical music education and performance institutions has diminished or disappeared. Instead of Mozart and Bach, the country’s radio and television stations now bombard youth with homegrown turbo-folk and American pop.

“I think they’ve been focused on surviving and they’ve been less focused on how do you make this available to a new generation, because before, they haven’t needed to go out and build audiences,” says Ansbacher, the founder and conductor of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, who still comes almost yearly to conduct in Sarajevo. Still, each time he returns, he sees little signs of change. This year, for the first time since the war, the elevators in the National Theater worked.

Still, many members of the Sarajevo Philharmonic remember the war years with a certain nostalgia. They were dangerous and difficult times for all Sarajevans, and members of the orchestra were no exception.

Arijana Zupcevic, now the second-violinist, joined the ensemble in the middle of the conflict at the age of 19 and recalls walking 10 miles each way through the besieged city for rehearsals and concerts. Seven members of the philharmonic died during the war, one killed not far from the doors of the National Theater, and at least 12 were seriously injured.

But, Dzevad Sabanagic, the philharmonic’s white-haired concertmaster and its longest serving member, says during the war, people turned to music and books for comfort because they had nothing else.

“In a city where 1 million grenades fell during the siege, people were longing for art,” he says. “We would see when the people entered the building that their faces were full of fear, because they had to walk through grenades and snipers. But the music kept them alive and it kept us alive.”

Now, he laments, Sarajevo is again focused on its material rather than spiritual needs. The city’s cafes are restaurants buzzing with stylish young people and its streets are lined with shops selling luxury clothes brands. The political situation is still precarious, but the guns have been silenced for nearly a decade and a half.

As he nears retirement, Sabanagic too worries about the future of classical music in Bosnia and the divides that still separate its people. When he was a child, classical music came to every city and village in the country. Today, the philharmonic, which also plays for the city’s opera and ballet, rarely travels outside Sarajevo and is now the only full-time, professional orchestra in the country. “There are 30 music schools in Bosnia today, but most students finish music school never having actually seen a philharmonic concert,” he says, shaking his head.

Increasingly, he and others fear, classical music in Bosnia — as in other western nations — is becoming a pastime of the old and rich. The cost of tickets, which usually range from $7 to $20, are modest by American standards, but still expensive in a country where many still make only a few hundred dollars a month.

The audience at the Feb. 19 concert, which also featured the well-known Argentinian born mezzo-soprano Bernarda Fink, who happens to be married to Valentin Inzko, the international High Representative in Bosnia, was certainly distinguished. Many of the country’s political leaders were there, including one of the country’s three presidents and the prime minister of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the country's two entities, as well as a good representation from the city’s diplomatic corps. But the predominant hair color, noted 22-year-old Dijana Pliska, was gray.

“As you can see in the concert, there are few young people, and they are mostly from the music academy,” said Pliska, herself a 22-year-old student of music, gesturing at the crowd. “We young people should do something to make other young people love classical music.”

Editor's note: Swanee Hunt and Charles Ansbacher are investors in GlobalPost.