Interview with Antoine Marguier, Conductor, United Nations Orchestra | November 2015
On 29 November 2015 at the Victoria Hall, Antoine Marguier will conduct the United Nations Orchestra and the invited cellist Camille Thomas. The concert will focus on Romantic music and composers Piotr Illitch Tchaïkovsky and Robert Schumann. Interview with this conductor who is also co-founder and art director at the United Nations Orchestra.
Courtesy Antoine Marguier
Antoine Marguier, you played 17 years as a clarinetist at the OSR before training for orchestral conducting. Since then you have led several important orchestras. What gave you the idea of creating the United Nations Orchestra?
I had this idea following a series of encounters I made over the years. It so happened that when I was a young clarinet player I had an opportunity to travel to India with the Orchestre français des Jeunes and to meet Mother Teresa in person. This meeting made a deep impression on me, and I thought that if I could do good with music, I should. Then, living in Geneva for over twenty years, I got to know several very talented musicians who engaged in high-level studies in music but opted for other professions – often within the International Geneva – later in life.
These musicians are extraordinarily motivated. It was really interesting to get them to join the orchestra. You know – an amateur orchestra is not a low-grade orchestra; it is simply composed of people who love playing. Amateur musicians may be playing in public five times or so in a year but when they do, they give the very best of themselves.
So I had the idea of the United Nations Orchestra in 2009. I soon mentioned it to Martine Coppens– she is a close friend – and together we created the United Nations Orchestra. Then it took us two years to implement the structure and fine-tune the concept. We even signed for a first concert before we had the musicians in place. When we placed a call for applications, we got a hundred applicants including several harpists, pianists, singers (laughs). We had 80 auditions, and 30 people were invited to establish a chamber orchestra with us.
I have to say this is a time of my life I will never, ever forget. Between auditions and the first rehearsal, a year went by. Musicians knew about it. But for people who often travel, a year is a very long period. On the evening of the first rehearsal, Martine Coppens and I were waiting to see if anyone would come. We were so relieved, when the first musician arrived, and then two, then three. Like in the movies. And now, we are like one big family, I guess.
What is the underlying concept of the orchestra?
The concept is simple: all members of this orchestra are staff members of the United Nations and international organizations in Geneva, in addition to a couple of musicians from Geneva and neighboring France.
Our objective is to play and to raise funds that are then donated to international organizations and NGOs. In five years, we were able to raise and donate approximately 150,000 CHF. The choice of beneficiaries depends on circumstances. A tsunami hit the coast of Japan in 2010 right before our maiden concert. So we decided to donate the proceedings of the concert to the Japanese Ambassador. Then there were Sierra Leone, Graine de Paix, orphans from Georgia, Syria, and many others. The Orchestra also contributes to raising the profile of these organizations during concerts and the associated media coverage.
Tell us about the musicians. Are they all from UNOG? How do you select them?
More than half work for one UN agency or another. The remaining ones work for other international organizations or NGOs. A funny story is that the President of Doctors Without Borders was playing among us, but we only knew it when Micheline Calmy-Rey went in to greet him after a concert.
When selecting musicians we do not do proper auditions but we meet anyone interested, and we work with those who are musically talented, but also and above all very motivated. A musician who feels like playing and is looking forward to being part of a concert will be ready to work hard to bridge gaps in his skills. The concert will be particularly important to he, or she, and that will motivate his or her work.
How do you manage when musicians need to travel abroad for a long time to fulfill professional obligations?
That is a challenge indeed because musicians come and go and we need to adapt. That is part of the game. There is a core team, though, twenty people or so who are there from the very beginning. We were 30 in 2010, and we are now 70. True, some of them work in the field, and they need to stay in Asia, in Africa or elsewhere for long periods of time. The Orchestra needs to go on, even with that kind of turnover. That being said, I feel that it is remarkable that these people manage to work together for good causes even during their leisure time.
How many concerts do you schedule every year and how many rehearsals are needed?
Every year we set up three different programs, for a total of 6 to 8 concerts. One concert currently entails six or seven rehearsals. I demand that everyone attends rehearsals, but I prefer that we have only a few rehearsals, because we are not a "Club du lundi", you know. I am very demanding on quality and professionalism. When you are doing lots of rehearsals, working together, you will play less alone. And progress is made when you are playing alone.
Tell us about the professional soloists featured by your concerts. Are they paid to play with you?
It is not always easy to find soloists, first because their agenda is often booked years in advance, and also because we try to mix and match well-known artists who play to help us with younger soloists we help to start a career. One of the advantages of the Orchestra is that it works like a launch pad for young artists.
Regarding Camille Thomas, who will be featuring the concert in early November, she is a young artist who had a beautiful career a couple of years past. She played in a trio with the United Nations Orchestra a couple of years ago. This time, she will be alone with the Orchestra.
Regarding Khatia Buniatishvili – who was playing last June on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of UNOG – she is a seasoned soloist, and she does not need that kind of assistance for her self-promotion. She volunteered for this concert, the benefits of which went to Syrian refugees, via UNHCR.
Soloists get their expenses covered, and that is it. Regarding money we work like in a household and we do not spend the money we don't have (laughs).
Does the Orchestra prefer a certain repertoire?
We try to focus on highly accessible programs. I like the idea of bringing classical music to the masses. Alas, I observe that classical music is still for an elite – music is vibrations above all, what a playing heart will send to a listening heart, a connection between people. I do not differentiate between classical music and the rest.
What is your relationship with the UN?
We have extremely close and privileged links with UNOG and its Director-General, Michael Møller, who is our honorary president. He attends practically every concert played under his patronage. We are financially independent but UNOG allows us to use a room for rehearsal, and that is a great help.
What is the budget of the Orchestra? How does it work?
I do not know the budget precisely, but I can tell you that every concert is a challenge. We know we need to sell a given number of tickets so we can donate a given amount to charity after we covered all expenses (the concert hall, etc.). Then we do what it takes. Obviously this is stressful because there is a huge musical offer here in Geneva with a stagnating audience.