In Azerbaijan, members of the Berliner Philharmoniker advocate for the rights of children with disabilities
by Rob McBride
BAKU, Azerbaijan, 22 September 2011 - On their first ever field trip, four musicians from the Berliner Philharmoniker, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, have visited the shores of the Caspian Sea, to contribute to changing the lives of some the most vulnerable; those with disabilities.
The group, Mor Biron (bassoonist), Philipp Bohnen (violinist), Christoph Hartmann (oboeist) and Clemens Weigel (cellist) who often perform together as an ensemble, are used to bringing pleasure to international audiences. Now they are donating the sweet strains of their music to help the most stigmatized and marginalized of children.
Their visit to Baku, Azerbaijan was timed to coincide with the opening of an international conference this week focusing on the needs of children with disabilities. The one-day session, bringing together 200 participants from 12 nations, was organized by UNICEF, the Government of Azerbaijan and the Heydar Aliyev Foundation. The goal was to encourage early detection, provide inclusive education, health care and social services for millions of children with disabilities, so they can develop to their full potential.
“In this part of the world in particular, there is a tradition of putting a child into a state institution if there is any problem,” said Mark Hereward, UNICEF Representative in Azerbaijan, “rather than having community services to support the family to keep the child at home.”
He was speaking as the conference was getting underway. During the opening session, delegates heard a video address from the world-renowned chief conductor of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Sir Simon Rattle. “We, of course, want to reach everybody in the world with our music,” said Sir Simon. “We believe it’s a right, not a luxury. But particularly we want to reach the children. And we hope in some small way, we are able to help.”
The Berliner Philharmoniker and Sir Simon Rattle have been an international Goodwill Ambassador since 2007, actively supporting UNICEF, most notably with relief concert in aid of the Haiti earthquake in 2010 and the Japanese tsunami earlier this year.
This trip, though, was the first time a small group has been sent into the field to help UNICEF in its work. On the evening of the conference, the quartet performed with Azerbaijan’s National Symphonic Orchestra at the historic Chamber and Organ Music Hall, a restored former church in the capital city. Receiving a standing ovation, the concert of works by Mozart and Haydn was clearly a success. Possibly more important to the musicians was the impact their music had on the children they met.
“It’s great to bring our music to Azerbaijan,” said oboeist Christoph Hartmann. “Perhaps our music can help to raise awareness about children with disabilities and if we can do a little piece with our music, it would be great. It’s great feeling for us.”
On the visit, the group saw several institutions caring for the needs of some of Azerbaijan’s children with disabilities. At The School for Children with Special Needs, which takes in mostly boarding students, around half are blind or partially sighted. The school places great emphasis on the power of music. The members of the Berliner Philharmoniker took part in the impromptu concert with the school’s own virtuosos.
First treated to a classical piece by the visitors, it was then the turn of the children to show their musical abilities. Singers, drummers and not least players of a local string instrument called a ‘tar’ took to the stage. Soltan Samadov, aged 15, got a huge surprise when after a few bars of a traditional Azeri melody, the Berliner Philharmoniker picked up the rhythm as, one by one, the Berliner musicians joined in to produce a multi-cultural melody of the musical voices.
“Of course I noticed that their instruments were not the right ones for this piece,” Soltan said after his ‘debut’ with the Berliner Philharmoniker. “But they were very good in performing this piece all the same.”
In thanking the staff and children, the musicians said they had learned as much from them as the children had learned about the music, illustrating the mutual benefit of this kind of engagement.
After the visit, violinist Philipp Bohnen expressed the desire that institutions in Azerbaijan, as elsewhere, could go further in supporting the needs of children with disabilities, by supporting them with social services in the community to live their families, instead of being forced to live in an institution in order to get proper care or education.
“You could be the best institution in the world,” he said, “but the family always is missing, and it doesn’t really make sense.”
His view, echoed that of Rosangela Berman-Bieler, UNICEF Senior Advisor for Children with Disabilities, in addressing the inequity of impairment at the conference. “Disability is a relationship between an impairment that someone has, and a society that does not adapt to the needs of everybody,” said Berman-Bieler. Being herself wheelchair bound, she used the example of wheelchair access as a case in point. “If you don’t (have ramp access) you stay segregated at home with no rights, with no participation at all.”
As the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker return to their native Berlin on Thursday, they will take back the knowledge that in some way their music will have made a difference on quite a few young lives, not least a star-struck tar player, named Soltan.
The four also visited a live-in institution for children with psycho-neurological disabilities and a day-care. They saw how much has already been invested in building and carers in government institutions but many still live apart from their families in order to receive the educational support that they need.
A highlight of the visit was to see a branch of the Mushviq Day Centre. Named after founder Valida Abbasova’s son, who was born unable to walk, the centre provides an impressive range of physical, mental and emotional support for children with disabilities and their families. Currently, it has three branches – the only such centre in the country where children can spend the whole day, receive quality care and education and return home to their families.
The musicians threw soft toy balls with infants, chatted with kids and witnessed one child received her high school graduation certificate that day. They saw how children thrive when parents can actively take part their upbringing and education.
Mark Hereward summed up the impact of this visit. “To interact with them equals and peers, sends a strong message that you can be a famous Berliner Philharmoniker, you can be a child with a disability in an institution but everybody is created equal, everybody has abilities which are limitless.”