Music builds bridges
INTERVIEW - ‘Culture is the bridge that should be blown up last’ is a statement Renée Jones-Bos, former Dutch ambassador to the US, likes to quote when talking about international artistic and cultural exchanges.
As Dutch ambassador to the US, and later as secretary-general of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Renée Jones-Bos was directly involved in tours undertaken by the Concertgebouworkest. Here she talks about the significance of these trips outside the Netherlands and how they can strengthen international political relations.
‘My professional introduction to the Concertgebouworkest coincided with an engaging, dynamic period in the US,’ she says. The year was 2009, Renée Jones-Bos had been appointed ambassador and Barack Obama had just been elected president. An era of charting new courses had begun, with a focus on reaching broader groups of people and new generations. Indeed, Obama had inspired and moved people who had never voted in their lives.
'Tours represent a link with what’s happening in the world and the orchestra’s motivation to connect.'
A motivation to connect
Jones-Bos says, ‘The brass players of the Concertgebouworkest were on tour in the US, and I got a chance to speak at length with the musicians and Jan Raes, the orchestra’s then managing director. What struck me during our discussions was that the orchestra, too, was looking for ways to revitalise and broaden its base of support and to be relevant to society. International tours give the orchestra a chance to demonstrate its awareness of the context in which it operates and performs. Its tours aren’t just about recognition and acknowledgement – they also represent a link with what’s happening in the world and the orchestra’s motivation to connect. That was true of the 2013 world tour and of the orchestra’s tour of all the capitals of Europe from 2016 to 2018 to mark the year of the Dutch EU presidency.’
What does it mean for the Dutch embassies in the various countries when the Concertgebouworkest pays a visit? Jones-Bos says, ‘First of all, obviously, it’s a chance to enjoy beautiful music performed by a fantastic orchestra. But it’s also the perfect opportunity to host special receptions. In fact, the musicians performed at a reception at our residence during the 2009 tour. The performance gave a completely different dimension to the occasion.
If you combine a reception with a concert by the Concertgebouworkest, it’s “extra useful”
Embassy receptions are always planned around a specific event – whether it’s a departure, an opening or the arrival of someone important from The Hague. They give people a chance to meet, and that’s always useful. But if you combine a reception with a concert by the Concertgebouworkest, it’s “extra useful”. Dignitaries, ministers, vice-ministers – they all want to come and hear the orchestra. It’s the perfect opportunity to invite key contacts and seek out members of the local press. Our guests loved it and still talk about it years later.’
Jones-Bos says a visit by the orchestra supports the core function of the Dutch embassies: ‘In every country all over the world, it’s about maintaining bilateral relations and advocating Dutch values and interests. As an ambassador, you’re always looking for tools to help you do just that.
‘In addition to political and economic relations, the cultural dimension is an important factor when it comes to cooperation. The quality and international reputation of the Concertgebouworkest make it such a valuable asset in this respect. The relationships ambassadors have to maintain are characterised by differences in language, values and interests. Art, and music in particular, transcends those differences. While diplomacy is usually based on words, texts, resolutions and negotiations, music is a universal language. You don’t need a translation when listening to music together.’
'Diplomacy is all about finding solutions to problems. Culture – especially music – can help facilitate that process.’
For better or worse
Jones-Bos says a visit by the orchestra is important not just when relations are good, but also when relations between countries are strained. ‘In the latter case, diplomacy is all about finding solutions to problems. Culture – especially music – can help facilitate that process.’ Jones-Bos thinks back to the Concertgebouworkest’s 2013 visit to Russia as part of the world tour she was involved in as secretary-general of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs: ‘It was the bilateral year between Russia and the Netherlands, and lots of things went wrong. Putin was welcomed in Amsterdam with a sea of rainbow flags in protest against the Russian gay propaganda law. The Netherlands went at it pretty hard.
‘The question was whether the orchestra should travel to Russia when the political relationship was so out of control. I believe the answer is yes, especially given the context. I’ve always asserted that a deteriorating political relationship does not mean all ties should be severed. Our relationship with Russia was, and still is, a complicated one. With the situation in Crimea and the MH17 disaster, it’s become even more so, and that’s just a fact we have to deal with. In cases like this, it’s important to keep looking for channels of communication. And as Mikhail Piotrovsky, Director of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, once said, ‘Culture is the bridge that should be blown up last.’ Culture – be it in the form of music, theatre, film, dance or collaborations between museums – builds bridges which should be maintained. Russians love culture, and Russia has produced many great composers and outstanding musicians. So music has enormous appeal there.
‘Sometimes political relations are good, sometimes they’re not so good; sometimes problems are solved, sometimes they’re not. Relationships between societies and cultures are more enduring, though, and often provide a roundabout means of re-establishing and bolstering other connections. A musical and cultural setting creates the opportunity to disengage from political discussions. A concert creates an atmosphere in which you can talk to one another in a different way. If you have a good relationship, it’s great when the orchestra comes to town, but if you have a difficult relationship, it’s actually even more important. Because it gives everyone a moment to connect.'