“Musical Silk”

By Jan Moritz Onken

Taboo (Issue I/2021)


The conductor Jan Moritz Onken. Photo: Nicolas Brodard

Mr. Onken, what does your orchestra stand for?

The term “New Silk Road” is mainly used for a gigantic Chinese infrastructure project that is supposed to open up new trade routes between Asia, Africa and Europe. With the help of our music, we are campaigning for every person - wherever they are in the world - to be able to create their own reading of this global concept. We still have the chance to give the “New Silk Road” a European interpretation, one that is human, inclusive and universal.

How did you come up with this idea?

I worked as a conductor in places along the Silk Road like St. Petersburg and Almaty. This has influenced me musically and I have experienced how sensitively people react to monopolistic interpretive sovereignties and terms like "Silk Road". That sparked the idea of founding the orchestra in 2016.

What do you want to achieve with your orchestra?

Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has shown for years that music can help overcome friction between musicians from the Middle East. Our orchestra, with up to 82 musicians from over twenty nations, focuses on the Silk Road countries and even goes one step further.

In what way?

We invite people to upload musical silks to our website, that is, video and audio recordings of classical works that they feel drawn to. To do this, we ran ads on Google asking, “How would you compose a silk road?” Within two years, more than 1.2 million people from all over the world landed on our platform. For me as a conductor, it is very special when a source of inspiration from a listener in Kinshasa, Sweden or New York flutters onto my mobile phone in the Berlin subway. Every little piece of “silk” contributes to the big picture. In the end, the ideas all converge in our “Berlin Dialog Concerts”. This interaction with our listeners underpins our “real” live concerts. We received an award for this in the “Germany - Land of Ideas” competition.

In concrete terms, how do you draw up this sort of program?

Ideas of quality diverge greatly in relation to a term like "classical music". We are open to this diversity, but we also have our own point of view. Take, for example, a concert in the large broadcasting hall of the Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg. There we combined a source of inspiration from a music lover in Beijing, “5 Elements” by Qi Gang Chen”, with “Don Juan” by Strauss and the “Firebird" by Stravinsky. At a concert in the Botanical Garden, suggestions from Tübingen, Budapest and Argentina forged a program of Mozart, Ligeti and Debussy.

What else is different about your orchestra?

Many orchestras define themselves by citing the name of a city, a composer or by referring to a form, for example, “philharmonic". We are neither a student orchestra nor a project orchestra. We are constantly developing, regardless of typical categories. In any case, I don't know of any other orchestra where a worldwide audience can have so much input!

How do you implement this technically?

Our orchestra is like a large swarm, which, depending on the program, the location and the financial possibilities, constantly reassembles in a changing line-up of between nine to 82 musicians. We cooperate with the Berlin Baroque Soloists, Cantus Cölln and scholarship holders from the ArteMusica Foundation in Frankfurt, among others. The legal sponsor is the non-profit Callias Foundation. Financially, we rely on sponsors from all over Europe. Rehearsals happen at various locations in Berlin.

The interview was conducted by Nicholas Brautlecht

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