In the No Borders Orchestra, talented young musicians from former Yugoslavian countries, divided by more than two decades of conflict, mingle together in much the same way as their strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion blend harmoniously on stage.
Since it was founded a mere four years ago in 2012, the symphony orchestra has won critical acclaim both within the Balkans and across Europe. But its social importance is arguably greater; by bringing together musicians from all seven former Yugoslavian states, it is helping to heal the scars of the past in a way unique to the war-torn region.
The NBO’s founder, director and conductor, Premil Petrovic, sees the orchestra as a metaphor for a harmonious society. “It is a lot of different individuals, who remain individuals, but are still part of the group and who should listen to each other,” he says in an interview with bne IntelliNews. “In the former Yugoslavia, nobody is really listening.”
25 years since Yugoslavia started to disintegrate, and eight years since the final schism of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence from Serbia, relations between and even within the country’s successor states remain tense. While the days of war and ethnic cleansing are over, there are still frequent flare-ups and minor outbreaks of violence.
Yet Petrovic’s experience of bringing the members of the orchestra together for the first time was a positive one. Even without the tragic recent history of the Western Balkan region, he points out that “having excellent musicians and soloists doesn’t mean you automatically have an excellent orchestra. It can take years to calculate the sound”.
However, he says there was an immediate fusion when the NBO first met. “What was unique and special in the case of the NBO was that it happened in the first two days. It was a magical meeting of people who were so happy to play together, so ready to listen, with so much respect for each other. It was absolutely incredible and we are all so proud,” he relates. “It was happiness to be together – Albanians with Serbs with Croats with Bosnians. Muslims with Catholics with Orthodox Christians. After the long years of war and negative propaganda, all these different nations and religions were finally sitting down together and making something amazing. The joy created the sound.”
He believes this is reflected in the unique sound of the orchestra. “It’s very open and joyful, very dynamic, energetic and electrifying,” he enthuses.
The decision to create the orchestra was born a couple of years earlier, in a conversation over coffee between Petrovic and his close friend Jelena Dojcinovic, now the orchestra’s executive producer. When Petrovic voiced his dream of creating an orchestra with the best young professional musicians from all the former Yugoslavian countries – an idea inspired by the West-East Divan Orchestra in which Israeli and Palestinian musicians play together – Dojcinovic urged him to make it happen.
At the time Petrovic was living in Berlin, where he had studied at the Academy of Music Hanns Eisler. Originally from Serbia, he previously founded the music theatre at Belgrade’s Cinema REX, which was an important political venue in the 1990s when Serbia was under the dictatorship of Slobodan Milosevic.
There followed two years of frantic activity – Petrovic recalls calling around Balkan music festivals from his Berlin flat – and auditions across the region, before the first public appearance in Kanjiza, Serbia, followed two days later with a concert at the gala opening of the 44th Bemus Festival in Belgrade.
Audiences across the former Yugoslavia responded emotionally to the orchestra’s performances. Petrovic recalls that many of the audience were in tears during a concert at the Cathedral of Blessed Mother Teresa in Pristina in October 2013, at a time of heightened tensions in the country. “In former Yugoslavia, the dominant emotions are negative ones like fear and hatred. The joy of being together is something very important to promote in the region,” he says.
Although the orchestra is made up of musicians from the Western Balkans, Petrovic stresses that it is not limited to the region, nor is it born out of nostalgia for Yugoslavia. “It is important for us to promote music from the Balkan region where there are some amazing contemporary composers who don’t have many chances to be played in the West. But while we are based in the Western Balkans region, we are not reduced to the Balkans, we belong to the world,” he explains. “The concept of No Borders is not only a political or social idea, it also applies to our music. We have a very broad repertoire.”
Standing invitations and ovations
Since 2012, the orchestra has played at festivals in Paris and Vienna, at the Radial System arts centre in Berlin, and to a standing ovation in the Barbican in London, as well as other venues across Europe. Its debut album, “The Opening”, was released by Universal Music Austria/Deutsche Grammophon in 2015. On May 11, it will play at the EBRD’s annual meeting in London.
In 2014 and 2015, the NBO collaborated with the South African performance company Third World Bunfight to put on an operatic version of Macbeth set in modern-day Democratic Republic of Congo. After a decade of violence between 1994 and 2003, the country is still recovering from a conflict dubbed ‘Africa’s first world war’, in which around 6mn people were killed. 13 years after the end of the war, parts of the country are still under the control of rebel groups, and the violence continues.
“The idea was that musicians from post-war zones in Europe would come together with singers from a post-apartheid country over the conflict in Congo, which is still going on,” Petrovic says. “This is an example of how we are not only staying in the Balkan region, but turning the orchestra into something important for the world.” The tour with the Third World Bunfight took the NBO to locations as far away as Brisbane, Cape Town and Gwangju in South Korea.
The involvement of the orchestra in some of today’s burning issues – making its concerts the antithesis of a “museum of music”, says Petrovic – continues, with plans to put on a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with a chorus of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other war-torn countries who are now living in Berlin. Syrian composer Malek Jandali has been commissioned to write a piece exclusively for the orchestra.
As the NBO plans to support those whose lives have been torn apart by more recent conflicts, Petrovic considers the question of whether a symphony orchestra or another artistic project can actually change the world. “I would say yes, because the first change starts in the orchestra itself,” he says. “The musicians who play for the NBO are not immune to the prejudice of their societies. They have been exposed for 20 years or more to such negative propaganda against other nations so they arrived a little bit fearful, a bit sceptical, and then their new friendships inside the orchestra changed them. So the first change is within the orchestra.”