“Give peace a chance….”

September 4, 2009

What if they gave a concert for peace and nobody heard it?

That twist on the old peace slogan – “What if they gave a war and nobody came?” – came to mind after the World Orchestra for Peace -– an occasional ensemble of some of the world’s best classical musicians –- played a concert in Krakow on September 1 to mark the Nazi invasion of Poland 70 years ago that started World War Two.

With Russian conductor Valery Gergiev on the podium, the orchestra played a “Prelude for Peace” by composer and Krakow native Krzysztof Penderecki, and a rousing account of Gustav Mahler’s gargantuan Fifth Symphony – but for whom?

Several hundred invited guests in a Krakow church, anyone who cared to look at a big screen on Krakow’s enormous main square, and listeners on Polish television and radio and over the Internet – world, were you listening?

It’s hard to judge the value of such efforts. For example, the New York Philharmonic was the first major Western orchestra to visit North Korea, but the audience for the 2008 concert in the almost walled-off communist state consisted largely of the party faithful. The orchestra was playing for the unconvertible.

Then there are the campaigns by globe-trotting celebrities like Bono, Bob Geldof, Angelina Jolie or Sting, to stamp out poverty, save the rain forests or stop the spread of AIDS. Is it all in a good cause, or is it part of the publicity machinery?

Music columnist Tom Service, who covered the Krakow concert for The Guardian, quotes the Krakow musicians being disarmingly blunt about music’s power for peace – they don’t think it is.

And yet, the world has always needed grand, intensely human gestures to mark the significant moments in history -– like Leonard Bernstein 20 years ago r leading a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin on Christmas Day in 1989 to mark the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Ever the man with a sense of occasion, Bernstein changed the first word of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” in the final movement from “freude”, the German for “joy”, to “freiheit” –- “freedom” -– and moved the world.

And who would argue that John Lennon didn’t do his bit with the lyric that became the motto of the Vietnam anti-war movement: “All we are saying, is give peace a chance.”

So some might say that the 300,000 euros or so it cost for Gergiev and the World Orchestra for Peace to play in Krakow might have been better spent on food for the poor, textbooks or to help Darfur refugees.

But if it made a few people remember what happened on Sept 1, 1939, and what the Nazis did in their death camps, including Auschwitz just outside Krakow, or, as Gergiev put it, if it dissuades just one suicide bomber perhaps it was worth it.

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