Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra: Great Recognition from the World and Eritrea
The Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra is a German orchestra globally recognized for its excellence in European classic music. Last year, the Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra was in Asmara to participate in the celebration of Eritrea’s independence. The orchestra’s extended stay and highly-lauded performances offered a rich, vibrant exchange of music and culture.
Dr. Michael Koehler, artistic director and principal conductor of the Leipzig Orchestra, along with violinist Giulia Milioti, were here in Asmara, and we had the opportunity to chat. Our discussion covered many different topics and the artists expressed enthusiasm to possibly being a part of Eritrea’s upcoming Independence Day celebrations. The following presents a brief summary of our pleasant discussion.
On Dr. Michael Koehler and his background
MK: Years ago, when I came from Berlin to Leipzig and settled there, I got a job as a professor of music at the Orchestra University. Subsequently, when some of my students decided to play masterpieces, concertos, and celebrated composers’ pieces, we collectively decided to gather and make music. Ultimately, that is how the Leipzig Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 2000.
Forming an orchestra might sound easy, but in reality it is not. Mainly, this is because there are 50 to 80 different people involved. But then again, the mutual interests and passions amongst the members, makes it much more feasible.
On diversity and people from all over the world
MK: Diversity is wonderful. That is how we live in Germany! There are people from all over the world; however, in Germany, people tend to adopt the German ways and culture. For example, consider Giulia here. In Sicily I bet she was always late for meetings, but once she moved to Germany she quickly learned to be sharp. Italians come ten minutes late!
So yes, it is nice to have people from all over the world with different cultures and ways of living. Nevertheless, people tend to adopt our ways of being and living.
On Giulia’s response to living with “always on time” people of Germany
GM: As humorous as it may seem, I learned to be on time when I went to Germany. They are never, ever – not even one minute – late. Somehow I became accustomed to their culture. But jokes aside, like Dr. Koehler, living amongst people of different cultures, one of the first things you need to learn is to respect each other’s norms, because what might be normal to you could be an insult to others. You need to be extremely careful for the reason that the university and the orchestra has a large mixture of people of different traditions and backgrounds. The beautiful thing about it though, is that despite cultural differences, music creates a strong bond amongst us.
On touring the world
MK: Yes. We have toured many, many countries. We’ve had the opportunity to perform in major concert halls in Korea, China, India, Russia, Sweden, across Latin America and the U.S., as well as your beautiful country, Eritrea. Although we have always played European classic symphonies, we have never experienced any cultural divides since music is a universal language.
Music transposes many differences by unifying each and every one of us. Our desire is to spread the message of unity trough music; there are no words in symphonies, just many musical instruments creating harmony. It brings togetherness. That is the motive of our international tours.
On Giulia Milioti and her background
GM: I am from Italy, the home to arts. Specifically, I am from Sicily, which is very similar to your country. Currently, I play the violin in Dr. Koehler’s orchestra. I studied and played the violin since I was a young child. I studied in Catania before moving to Germany to continue my university studies there.
I was here [in Eritrea] in May and I am so glad to be back again! My experience was beyond explainable. It was my first trip to Africa. As you may know, some of the external perceptions about Africa, and especially Eritrea, are rather unpleasant. Undoubtedly because we often have the wrong information of [Eritrea] in Europe, I was not sure whether to come or not. However, when I got here I felt nothing like I had feared. It is nice here, and one of the most peaceful places I have ever been to.
Ultimately, that is why I decided to come back and teach music to Eritrean children. In fact, during my short visit, I had the opportunity to go to the Asmara Music School and the Italian School. You have a rich culture in music, it is wonderfully pleasant to see how every ethnic group owns its respective musical tradition. So I thought that would be a nice experience for me to share some European music traditions with you. Simply, it is just beautiful to be here with you.
On wrong perceptions and assumptions
MK: We have the wrong information about your country. Even my parents told me not to go to Eritrea. But I decided that I wanted to know and see for myself and thus, I came. And you know what…I was in Massawa on the second day of my visit. I asked myself why is it that such a nice, peaceful people are not being assisted in developing their country?
On their concerto during Independence Day in May
MK: We performed during the Independence Day celebration and it was really, really delightful. We started performing, but we did not know exactly what to play. Since we were playing music from the European culture, we were unsure of how the audience’s would react. Our fears were quickly put to rest, and it was a pleasure to see how the people at the stadium started clapping, smiling and enjoying our performance.
After that, we were quite relaxed in our following performance at the Asmara Opera House. We were very assured of Eritrean population’s respectfulness towards a different culture and their readiness and eagerness to see, learn, and enjoy.
On their possible return for Eritrea’s 25th Independence Day celebration
MK: I hope so. At the moment we need some support, since we rely on private sponsorship. But if we are to eventually come, this time we will do a survey on what the Eritrean people like. Because we aim to please trough music…what symphony would you suggest?!
We would take our time and study how we could entertain you. Maybe a bit more upbeat? Last year, we played Vivaldi’s Winter, but we had a more excited reaction to our upbeat music.
An unforgettable, lovely memory from last year, which at the moment surprised me a bit because in Germany we don’t have that, was when at the end of the ceremony everybody, including the president, gathered to dance. And we were all hugging…it was so affectionate. I was so happy to be a part of that very specific moment, and I hope I be a part of it again.
On expectations if they return
MK: I remember how much President Isaias Afewerki enjoyed our performance last year. This year, I would also like him to come to the Asmara Opera House.
So is this an invite to the president?
MK: Perhaps…yes it is!
GM: For me, what I expect the most is a big crowd of young, enthusiastic people. I want more young people to be a part of our performances. My dream is to share music and culture with Eritrean youth and children.
**Author’s note: I would especially like to thank Ms. Jenette Zimmer for her warmth and hospitality at the German Embassy residence.