Interview: Julian Azkoul, United Strings of Europe

‘We’ve actually been discussing the importance of sharing other cultures through the arts, as a way of bridging and maybe undermining some hostility that might exist, or counteracting some of it,’ says United Strings of Europe’s artistic director Julian Azkoul.

The London-based pan-European ensemble was formed in 2012 at the Royal Academy of Music and through musical performances, interdisciplinary collaboration, and educational initiatives celebrates cultural diversity.

On 27 February the ensemble will present the first of their self-curated New Horizons International Artist Series at Conway Hall.

Titled A Distant Light Shines, the event is set to showcase the group’s world-wide collaborations and present both established and new repertoire from Lebanon, New Zealand, and Latvia.

We sat down with Julian to chat about the artistic choices that informed the ensemble’s latest project, the rewards of collaboration and the importance of cross-cultural collaboration…

Could explain a little bit about the New Horizons Artist Series?

One of the basic premises of the United Strings of Europe, the ensemble, is collaboration with musicians from, obviously, different backgrounds, from different European nationalities, and what we wanted to do was expand on that with soloists, and to feature artists who aren’t always heard in the UK, for instance. So, that’s the idea behind the Series.

Our first concert is going to feature Amalia Hall who’s from New Zealand, who has performed in the UK as she won the Overseas League Award a few years ago, and she has some concerts now in the UK, but this will be her only concerto performance. In March, we have Itamar Zorman who won the second prize in the Tchaikovsky International Violin competition, who is based in the US, and this will be his London debut.

Going forward, we’re maybe also going to look at hopefully collaborating with artists from different musical styles as well, not just classical music.

The programme you’ve got coming up includes music by Schubert, Vasks and Farr. What was the thinking behind the selections you made?

One of the themes of this first concert is atmospheres and climate, in a funny way. So, all of the pieces touch on this in a very different way. The Schubert not explicitly, but being in C Minor and the stormy associations of that key, from Beethoven onwards, we thought that was kind of a nice addition.

The Vasks describes landscapes, Scandinavian landscapes in particular, as well as going from dark passages to more hopeful ones, and that’s a theme in that piece. It’s, sort of, looking towards more hopeful horizons, you might say. Quite fitting with the title of the Series.

Then the Khoury piece, the Lebanese work, is Et le vent qui Souffle, which is ‘And the Wind Blows’, so it’s also a slightly dark and desolate picture that more explicitly evokes ideas of weather, or temperament, more and more abstractly.

That leaves, of course, the piece from New Zealand which is a very exciting work, that’s been performed, I think, a fair amount for a modern piece, although how many times in the UK, I’m not so sure. This is a new version that I’ve done, adding a base, and it goes through a whole whirlwind of styles and cultures and mambo and evokes lots of different things.

There isn’t a, sort of, programmatic theme insofar as there’s not really a story from A to Z, but all the pieces evoke aspects of climate, or horizons, of geography. And in a sense, because we represent a wide variety of nations on the group, and because we have played works by composers from Serbia, Lebanon, the US, etc. in the past, we felt that this would be a nice way to showcase the variety of the group.

It features new arrangements of Schubert and Farr, for instance, what was that process was like for you?

That’s a very good question. Both the Schubert and the Farr are originally for quartet, and there’s kind of a tradition. This week in Sweden, I’m playing Beethoven’s Serioso quartet in the version that Mahler did, where he added a bass part, and he also did that with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet. So, there’s kind of a tradition of expanding certain quartets for a string ensemble and adding a bass part.

What I’ve done with the Schubert is maybe a little different, in that there are moments of interplay between just the quartet, or quintet, with bass, and the whole group. So, everyone isn’t constantly playing the original quartet part. I’ve adapted some of the parts in such a way that there’s this, sort of, conversation going on between the original formation, as it were, and the augmented group.

With the Farr, it’s a little more straightforward, in that we’re all playing the original parts most of the time and then I’ve added a bass part to enhance the bassline that the cello would normally have. Give it a little more mambo and rumba, as well.

Going back to Amalia Hall, what has it been like to work with soloists like her, as part of the ensemble?

It’s a very inspiring process. There’s always a new energy, a new direction, new ideas that can enthuse the ensemble, and that’s something we’re very keen on maintaining and nourishing, going forward. I find it very refreshing. Of course, it’s not always, perhaps, as brilliant as one might hope. It depends on the repertoire and the soloist and all this, but we’re very, very excited with Amalia and Itamar in particular. I’ve worked with Itamar in Sweden, actually, on that same work that he’ll be playing with us, the Hartmann concerto in F.

Amalia is our age, basically, the same generation as most of the group, so there’s an added camaraderie, I’d say. She’s very much up for, you know? I said, “Do you want to come to Lebanon and do some concerts with us?” and she said, “Yes, absolutely.” She’s never played in Lebanon before, so that’ll be something new and exciting, and in fact, the New Zealand embassy is so keen on her being there that they’re organising a whole reception and diplomatic event.

In that sense, we’re also bringing artists to a country where they may not have had a chance or would otherwise not have had a chance to perform. I think it’s also an interesting programme to take to Lebanon because it’s is again work that won’t have been played. The Vasks, it’ll be a national premier. The Farr as well. Then, it’s also good for Houtaf Khoury to have his music heard in his country as well. So, we’re quite excited about that. It was lucky we could combine it all.

Cultural diversity lies at the heart of United Strings of Europe. How important do you think cross-cultural collaboration in music is?

I think it’s really essential. It’s interesting. I’m mentioning Sweden a lot but it’s only because I’m here, working with another string group called Camerata Nordica. There’s been quite a right wing trend politically, locally here and also nationally in Sweden, and more overt hostility to difference and immigration and refugees and all this.

We’ve actually been discussing the importance of sharing other cultures through the arts, as a way of bridging and maybe undermining some hostility that might exist, or counteracting some of it. I think that’s very important, as much for the musicians taking part as for the audiences, to introduce other cultures to them in a way that they might not have expected or had not experienced in that way before, and how that can be a powerful way of changing perceptions.

That’s where outreach is also extremely important. To only perform for audiences that are perhaps already attuned to other cultures or are perhaps more inclined to experience other cultures is one thing. You know, your standard well-do-do classical music audience, perhaps. But then, going out into the community and in schools and workshops and other ways of reaching people.

So, we have a workshop that we’re doing at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre on the 27 February, earlier in the day, that’s in East London. The idea is to reach other segments of the population that way. In Lebanon, we’re doing quite a lot of outreach in schools which is also an important way to not only communicate cultural difference, but also to engage young people with music, with the arts, so show them the social value of making music and collaborating together and that it can actually be a lot of fun. And that new classical music is not just a serious thing where people dress well and have to sit very quietly and clap at the right time.

Particularly in UK, it’s impressive the amount of outreach work that’s being done, and there’s a lot of innovation going on in the UK. But this is less the case in other European countries, certainly in places like Lebanon. So, that’s always been a part of our activities as an ensemble, and it’s something that we definitely want to enhance and expand going forward. Looking to the future, if we can pursue this Series in London and perhaps outside of London as well, that would be nice, we’re going to look a new ways of reaching out to other segments of the community, certainly.

How did your relationship with Amnesty International come about in the first instance?

I started working with a group called the World Harmony Orchestra. They do a lot of community work, particularly in the UK, and their art director is a French guy called Romain Malan. He works with the Islington Council for Refugees and Migrants and he conducts the choir there. Then, he works with another group called Core Arts, which promotes positive health and wellbeing through creative activities, particularly for people who have mental health difficulties and challenges. I was talking with him and I participated in some of the World Harmony Orchestra activities and at one of them we met Gianmaria Bandiera who manages the Amnesty International Human Rights Action Centre.

We got into discussing how we could do something together with the United Strings of Europe. The Human Rights Centre has very kindly offered the space for this workshop and Romain Manan of the World Harmony Orchestra will be bringing young refugees and migrants who study at the Islington Council, who study English and get skills like that, and also adults who take part in activities at Core Arts, an organisation that promotes mental health, to engage with them.

So, we have two different groups. There are two segments that we wanted to target, and it was very fortunate that it was possible to do this at Amnesty’s Centre, and they’re also going to do some outreach to try to reach out to some of their participants and people who actively engage with their Centre. So, we’re hopeful that, if it works out well, this could be a model going forward.

I’m very excited about it. I think it’ll have a big impact on the participants. Not only will they be exposed to the different cultures behind the repertoire that we’re doing, but we also have interactive games with them and interactive activities. We get them to try to conduct and it’s usually very, very amusing. I find that really funny. The whole point is that they leave with a very positive experience, that they know more about musical instruments, about an ensemble that plays together, about what it means to maybe play in an ensemble and be professional musicians, and particularly how music can communicate things emotionally.

That, I think, is a powerful experience. We’ve had very, very positive feedback in the past, and we’ve refined our model in the many, many workshops we’ve done, some of which have been in quite challenging situations. I did a workshop in one of the Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut a few years ago for an organisation called Al Kamandjâti, which organises music in the West Bank and in Lebanon and Jordan, in the refugee camps.

In that case, they had organised this event and I came in with a couple of musicians, and it was clear that some of the participants had been dragged into this, and probably had other things that were preoccupying them and challenges in their lives, and they were not necessarily interested in listening to some Western-based musicians talking about music. So, it was a challenge to engage some of them, but that was also very rewarding.

We did another project in Lebanon with another organisation called the Unite Lebanon Youth Project. They work with refugees, but also Lebanese orphans and Lebanese children from very, very deprived backgrounds, and they organise everything. They go and pick them up at home, they bring them to the centre for the day, and they get language, maths, coding. They also teach them coding, which I thought was very interesting. I guess, the means to expand their skills and, in many cases, maybe the Internet can provide them with a way to reach other people like them. It’s interesting. It seems to be working quite well.

So, they were keen to do something more artistic, and that’s where we came in and did a workshop with them. Again, some of the kids were either rather unruly or not used to being in a situation where you have to respectfully listen, at least a little bit, before intervening and responding. So, that’s also an important lesson for kids, to think, not just about music, but also how to respect one another.

So, I think these workshops have engaged people on a range of levels, and it’s not just about the music.

For you personally, how has working with international artists on these kinds of projects shaped your approach to music?

That’s a really good question. I guess I’ve been in such settings for most of my life. I have a very mixed national background. My father is originally Lebanese but born in the States. My mother’s British, from Uruguay, and I grew up, mainly, in Switzerland, in Geneva, which is a very international city, especially for its size. So, in a way, it’s almost part of my identity now to go and seek out the input and the artistry from all kinds of backgrounds, and all kinds of nationalities. I mean, I couldn’t imagine operating in a different way at this point.

So, I think, in a way, what I’m doing with United Strings of Europe, what we’re doing as an ensemble is building on that and expanding on something that I feel is really important. I do realise not all musicians have those opportunities.

One of the things we did, the first time we went to Lebanon, I organised an Arabic music workshop. Of course, Arabic music uses different modes, quarter-tones. It tends to be monophonic rather than polyphonic. So, in a way, it was just to give them a taste, to expand their horizons a little bit as well. Just coming back to this word ‘horizons’.

In fact, we did a more traditional piece that time, which included improvisations in an Arabic style, by myself and the Lebanese viola player who’s based in Zurich, who took part in that project and plays with us sometimes, and who actually would be playing with us now, in London, but it’s very, very difficult to get visas for Lebanese people to come and work, even for a few days, in the UK.

We looked into the process initially and then, just given everything else that needed doing for this project, we unfortunately decided we couldn’t get him to come, this time at least, which was a real shame because I think that would also have added an element. I mean, I play a little bit of Arabic music, but I didn’t grow up with that music, or listen to that music particularly, whereas he did and it’s much more part of his musical output. So, that’s a shame. But maybe we can organise differently in the future, we can hopefully bring him over and do something with him.

To purchase ticket to A Distant Light Shines at Conway Hall, please visit eventbrite.co.uk

You can find out more about United Strings of Europe here

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