Concert of the Silk Road Symphony Orchestra

What Is the Cultural Heritage We Share?


20 Mar 2017 | Daniel Gerlach | Europe and the Emerging Economies

Inspired by the 5th BMW Foundation Global Table in Tanzania, the conductor Jan Moritz Onken initiated the Silk Road Symphony Orchestra. Through classical music, the initiative wants to improve the relations between the people living along the Silk Road, from China to Central Asia and Russia all the way to Spain.

Two years ago, China announced the “New Silk Road” initiative, which is to extend across Central Asia and reach all the way to Spain. It is much more than an infrastructure project. It aims to redefine China’s geostrategic role, as this emerging economy seeks to counterbalance the dominance of the dollar and the strong euro.
China’s growth depends on export, and prosperity can only emerge from stable sales markets. Through infrastructure projects in the countries along the Silk Road, China seeks to establish these markets and increase its political and economic influence.

On January 20, 2017, a concert of the Silk Road Symphony Orchestra took place at the Botanical Gardens in Berlin. Why the message of this orchestra is more important than ever is explained by Responsible Leader Daniel Gerlach in his welcome speech.

Daniel Gerlach's speech at the Botanical Gardens

Gold, jade, chinaware, spices, and, of course, silk – these were the goods that fearless traders used to travel with, along a route of almost 6,000 kilometers across the Eurasian continent and the Mediterranean to Europe. Each trading enterprise covered only a limited section of the Silk Road; many drew rich benefits from it. Most were undertaking great risks to achieve their goals.

Now, the Silk Road Cultural Belt is not only connecting people on the way; it seeks to build a chain of cultural interaction, of mutual inspiration, and it wants to redefine from the bottom up: What is the cultural heritage we share?

How would you compose a Silk Road? This was the question that the Silk Road Cultural Belt initiative asked hundreds of thousands of internet users in 2016, thanks to a Google Ad Grants worth almost 100,000 euros that helped the initiative reach out to the world.

The Silk Road Orchestra on Flickr

People from all over the world posted their musical references, their all-time favorite music, to inspire the initiative – and also tonight’s event. This swarm-like, crowd-sourced inspiration is what Jan Moritz Onken, the conductor and artistic director of the orchestra, called the “Conference of the Birds.”

The countries along the ancient Silk Road are moving closer together, at least in terms of travelling hours. And new Silk Roads, such as the Maritime Silk Road across the Indian Ocean, are opening up. The announcement of billions of investment, mainly from China, across the Eurasian landmass raises great expectations. But without a cultural answer to this project, without a cultural dialogue, these ambitions might be to only limited avail.

Countries and states that used to be fulcrum points of intercultural trade and exchange, such as Syria, are shattered. Brutality prevails and with the disdain for human lives comes the sovereign contempt for cultural heritage.

A new cultural alliance

I did not want to become political tonight. One could argue that, on this Friday, January 20, one must be either cynical or naive to praise the potential impact of art and culture on societies. And I am not alluding to the inauguration of the 45th U.S. American president who is highly controversial, also among artists and musicians.

Today, the international media has received evidence that one of the marvels of antiquity, a site called Tadmor, or Palmyra, one of the most stunning results of cultural interaction and an ancient hub for Silk Road traders, was devastated once again.

The so-called Islamic State, fancying itself the nemesis of civilization, seems to have blown up parts of Palmyra’s Roman tetrapylon and the Roman theater, after retaking it once again from Russian forces and the Syrian regime.

What a bitter irony, what a demonstration of the vanity of power, what a repellent demonstration of how culture and music are being instrumentalized, if we consider that, less than eight months ago, one of the world’s most famous conductors had brought a symphonic orchestra to Palmyra in order to celebrate victory over this same terrorist organization.

»The kind of cultural alliance that the Silk Road Cultural Belt proposes is not going to change the world. ... But it is joyful, it enriches our identities, and, frankly, it is the only thing we have!«

Daniel Gerlach

Well, it seems that, after a worldwide broadcast of this victory celebration, priorities went elsewhere. And Palmyra was left to its own, doomed fate.

Dear friends, the kind of cultural alliance that the Silk Road Cultural Belt proposes is not going to change the world. It is not going to calm the rage of jihadists; it is not, at least not imminently, going to bring down bigotry and brutal regimes.

But it is joyful, it enriches our identities, and, frankly, it is the only thing we have. Art and music of the kind we witness today, tonight, command our admiration, and they can give solace to thousands along this new Silk Road.

If the “silk” stands as a metaphor for everyone’s creative contributions, then the “Silk Road” remains a chain of far-off, longed-for places – “Sehnsuchtsorte,” as we say in German.

The Silk Road Symphony Orchestra

The Silk Road Symphony Orchestra, an independent project committed to this idea, was founded by the Callias Foundation and made its debut in June 2016 in Berlin, performing works by Strauss, Stravinsky, and the Chinese composer Qigang.

It will soon embark on a journey and play together with like-minded musicians in Istanbul, Tehran, Tashkent, and many other places.

Therefore, and now let us talk business, it needs financial support. It wants to raise 1.3 million euros within the current year to forge the links for the first chain of the Silk Road Cultural Belt.

The idea for the orchestra was born at the 2015 BMW Foundation Global Table in Tanzania, a country not quite off the Silk Road anymore. Therefore, the Callias Foundation would like to thank the BMW Foundation, which also contributed generously to the funding of tonight’s event.

You enjoy art and music for free now. But we are grateful for your donations – for small donations to remunerate tonight’s artistic contributions, and for larger donations, too, as you can read in the letter that was handed out to you at the gate.

Today’s musical assortment was inspired by participants from along the Silk Road Cultural Belt.

Jan Moritz Onken, the mastermind behind all this, has worked as a conductor with orchestras in foreign lands and many nations. He has brought the sounds of Bach, Mozart, and Wagner to the steppes of Kazakhstan, the mountains of Tajikistan, and the South African Transvaal. He learned his craftsmanship at the St. Petersburg Conservatory and has worked with first-rate classical musicians in South Korea, but his talent has always been to cut crude diamonds in circumstances often hostile to the arts.

Maybe, Moritz, it is not all about music. But for music it is for sure.

How would we Central Europeans ever have tasted the spices of the Silk Road and ever touched silk, if it weren’t for the Italians, dear Flavio de Marco, not forgetting the indefatigable team of the pizzeria Papa Pane. Grazie, amici, for catering us tonight!

The window of contemporary times

In a few weeks time, different works by Flavio will be exhibited almost simultaneously in prestigious museums in four Italian cities. So not only are we grateful to have Flavio here tonight, as a host, but to find out that he produced this work especially for tonight’s event.

Flavio de Marco reflects on the windows through which artists look at the world today and on what can be seen.

For him the computer screen is the window of contemporary times: it is the subject of his pictorial investigations relating to this new space offered by virtuality. Over the years, images of "classical" landscapes began to appear inside the computer screens he was depicting, inspired by the schematic representations of the world which surround us through tourism and advertisement. The computer symbolizes a globalized world where the shrinking distance leads us to lose our capacity to emotionally relate to nature and to confront what is in front of us.

Continuing these reflections, Flavio in parallel started to leave his studio to confront landscape directly, without the filter of the screen. With only colored markers he started to work en plein air, doing a series of drawings while listening to classical music.

The drawings you will see tonight follow the same principle: the painter chose three pieces of music whose movements he followed in his drawings. The first one is Six Bagatelles by György Ligeti, the second Debussy, the third Mozart.

And these are precisely the works you will hear after this lengthy speech. Please welcome the soloists of the Silk Road Symphony Orchestra. Please support it royally. Thank you, and have a good evening!