Azerbaijan: the Berliner Philharmoniker as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors in Baku

29 May 2013

On 19 September 2013, oboist Christoph Hartmann, violinist Philipp Bohnen and bassoonist Mor Biron travelled to Baku on a special three-day mission in their function as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors for the orchestra: Together with the Heydar Aliev Foundation, UNICEF organised an international conference for children with disabilities in Azerbaijan's capital. The aim of the conference was to provide better educational opportunities for children in Azerbaijan and other countries of the former Soviet Union, enabling them to better integrate into society. Previously, only a few disabled children lived with their families. In the days of socialism, they were housed in boarding schools and orphanages where there was no guarantee of standard of care.

Departure into the unknown

The musicians set out – as Christoph Hartmann admits – with mixed feelings. “We didn't really know what was waiting for us or what was expected of us as UNICEF Goodwill Ambassadors. After all, it was the first time that musicians of the Berliner Philharmoniker were actively taking on this role, and then also in a country like Azerbaijan, which we here in Europe still know little about.” Added to this was the thought of whether, given the devastating famines and wars in Africa, getting involved in a materially relatively secure emerging country like Azerbaijan was a reasonable thing to do. “Looking back, I can say that this trip was very useful,” said Christoph Hartmann. “I realised that UNICEF operates comprehensively and structurally, not situationally. Against this background, I also understand the reasons for the international conference and the campaign for children with disabilities as part of which we gave a concert with the Hajibeyov Azerbaijan State Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Fakhraddin Karimov.”

Music lovers

The concert, which took place in a small, renovated Protestant church, was a big media event. The Philharmoniker, who performed Mozart's G minor Symphony and Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante together with the Azerbaijan musicians, got a tremendous response form the audience, as did the video messages from Sir Simon Rattle and media board member Stanley Dodds which the musicians had brought with them from Berlin and which were shown at the conference. The concert was the prelude to a series of field visits by the Philharmoniker to a variety of facilities to find out about the situation of disabled children in Azerbaijan. The Philharmoniker viewed the visits to these institutions with a certain scepticism. Mor Biron wondered: “As a musician, how can you help children who you visit briefly, play a concert for them, then fly back to Berlin? However, experience has now shown me how happy the children are that we came to their school especially for them and played together with them. We didn't need to speak the same language to understand their joy."

Field visits to various facilities

During their three-day visit, the UNICEF Goodwill ambassadors visited a boarding school for blind and visually impaired children, an institution for children with mental and neurological disorders, and the Mushvig day care centre. Each of these institutions left different impressions. For example, the Philharmoniker enjoyed playing music together at the boarding school for blind and visually impaired children. “As a musician and as a human being, it is incredibly gratifying to feel how much the children enjoy it when you play just one movement of Telemann to them, play their music along with them, or just pay them the slightest attention,” said Philipp Bohnen. By contrast, the Philharmoniker felt visiting the institute for children with mental and neurological disorders rather depressing because the head of the institute there spoke only about the shortcomings of her pupils, not their potential.

A happy experience

The Mushvig day care centre was quite different. “In my opinion, that was the highlight of our trip," says Philipp Bohnen enthusiastically. "In the Mushvig day care centre there are children with all types of disabilities in the one place, where they receive encouragement and have the opportunity to learn. They also don't lose their parents, on the contrary, the parents are also integrated into the work there, so the children retain a sense of home." The days were gruelling, intensive, but satisfying for the musicians. And as Mor Biron said on the return journey, they hope that the campaign was successful. “UNICEF is committed to ensuring that children with disabilities in Azerbaijan receive better educational opportunities and more recognition from society. We went to spread this message and to create the necessary awareness in society for a rethink.”