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In Azerbaijan, members of the Berliner Philharmoniker advocate for the rights of children with disabilities

By Rob McBride

BAKU, Azerbaijan, 23 September 2011 - On their first ever field trip, four musicians from the Berliner Philharmoniker, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, visited the shores of the Caspian Sea in Baku, Azerbaijan, to advocate for the rights of children with disabilities.

VIDEO: UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on members of the Berlin Philharmonic bringing their musical goodwill to children with disabilities in Azerbaijan  Watch in RealPlayer


The group, Mor Biron (bassoonist), Phillipp Bohnen (violinist), Christoph Hartmann (oboist) 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 stigmatised and marginalised of children.

Inequity of impairment

The musicians' visit was timed to coincide with the opening of an international conference 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, with the aim of encouraging early detection and providing inclusive education, health care and social services for millions of children with disabilities.

“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.”

Adding to the discussion, Rosangela Berman-Bieler, UNICEF Senior Advisor for Children with Disabilities, pointed out the inequity of impairment in her address to the gathering.

© UNICEF/2011/Azerbijan/Pirozzi
The Azerbaijan State Symphonic Orchestra’s Rauf Abdullayev conducts a charity concert with in Baku on 20 September 2011 with special guest stars Clemens Weigel (cellist), Mor Biron (bassoonist) and Christoph Hartmann (oboist).

“Disability is a relationship between an impairment that someone has, and a society that does not adapt to the needs of everybody,” she said. “If you don’t (have ramp access) you stay segregated at home with no rights, with no participation at all.”

‘A right, not a luxury’

During the 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.”

The Berliner Philharmoniker has been an international Goodwill Ambassador since 2007, actively supporting UNICEF, most notably with a 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 Hadyn was clearly a success.

© UNICEF/2011/Azerbijan/Pirozzi
Christoph Hartmann (oboist) plays an impromptu duet with Soltan Samadov, 15, on the traditional Azeri guitar while Mor Biron (holding the bassoon and microphone) smiles.

“It’s great to bring our music to Azerbaijan,” said oboist  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.”

‘Everybody has abilities’

On the visit, the group saw several institutions caring for the needs of some of Azerbaijan’s children with disabilities; including the School for Children with Special Needs, which takes in mostly boarding students - around half of whom are blind or partially sighted. The school places great emphasis on the power of music and the members of the Berliner Philharmoniker took part in an impromptu concert with the school’s own virtuosos.

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 receiving quality care and education and then return home to their families.

Mark Hereward summed up the impact of this visit on a note of equity, stating: “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.”



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