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Modern orchestra – promotion and the formation process

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The I, CULTURE Orchestra accompanied the Polish Presidency of the European Union in 2011 before becoming a pillar of the I, CULTURE program held at the Adam Mickiewicz Institute for many years now. During the International Academic Session on Symphonic and Operatic Conducting – Challenges of Today, held in 2017 at the Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz, the artistic, educational, cultural and socio-political background of the project was presented by its originator and artistic director Paweł Kotla.


Ladies and Gentlemen, we have just heard the opening of the fourth movement of Symphony No. 5 in D minor by Dmitri Shostakovich. This recording was made on September 2, 2011 by Swedish Radio live at Berdwaldhallen in Stockholm, during the final concert organized by Esa-Pekka Salonen within the Baltic Sea Festival[1]. The festival gathered distinguished ensembles including the Orchestra of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and the Swedish Radio Orchestra. This was the second concert in the history of the I, CULTURE Orchestra youth orchestra (abbreviated as ICO), comprising mostly young musicians who 35 days prior to the concert had had minimal orchestral experience.

28 years ago, with the political transformation in Poland, new opportunities for Polish culture and musical life emerged. Moreover, Polish accession to the European Union in 2004 provided a springboard for its dynamic development. Open borders, economic development, decentralization of the culture management system, as well as accession to the Schengen zone and a rapid increase in the number of countries that signed visa-free travel agreements with Poland, resulted in positive phenomena enriching the development of our culture, namely:

  • easier experience exchange between Polish and foreign artists (as reflected, for example, in easier access to the best international art universities for young Polish musicians);
  • better cultural exchange and broader opportunities for international cooperation (both at the level of artistic institutions and individual artists);
  • rapid growth in the number of high-quality concert halls (thanks to more funding becoming available in the public sector and grants from the European Union).

It should be noted that the sudden change in the rules of cultural financing also had a negative impact on some institutions – some of them were unable to continue their activities (such as radio orchestras and choirs). Notwithstanding this, in the new reality, a number of high-class, part- or full-time ensembles began to emerge (such as the Gorzów Philharmonic Orchestra, Elbląg Chamber Orchestra, Radom Chamber Orchestra, Sinfonietta Cracovia, Sinfonia Iuventus, AUKSO Chamber Orchestra, Baltic Neopolis Orchestra), project-based orchestras (e.g. New Chamber Orchestra, Beethoven Academy Orchestra, International Lutoslawski Youth Orchestra, I, CULTURE Orchestra, Lutoslawski Youth Orchestra, Johann Strauss Salon Orchestra, among others). In addition, significant development of the music environment took place thanks to enlargement of already existing institutions such as the National Forum of Music, Toruń Symphony Orchestra, Podlasie Opera and Philharmonic Orchestra. Under these circumstances, new opportunities and challenges appeared before conductors in our country. It became particularly important to gain experience not only in preparing projects, concerts and performances, but also in building new orchestral ensembles. Ensembles that would find and maintain their position in the new, more commercialized and multi-dimensional reality (music culture now has to fight for the listener, differently than 30-40 years ago) and that – thanks to easier access to the best concert halls in Poland and around the world, as well as the possibility of cooperation between Polish and foreign musicians at the highest level – would win international recognition.


I, CULTURE Orchestra was founded seven years ago and, despite the fact that it was supposed to exist for a few months only, during the Polish presidency of the European Union in the second half of 2011, it still operates today, reaching a level and status that caught the attention of one of the most sought-after conductors in the world – Andrey Boreyko, appointed this year [2017 – editor’s note] its artistic director.

What might be interesting is the project’s genesis, how it was developed and how it so quickly reached a level worthy of Europe’s finest concert halls, the acclaim of European music critics and a reputation in the European music market. Practically from the beginning, it was a large-scale project, covering Europe from Azerbaijan to London and from Stockholm to Madrid.

The decision to pair Poland’s six-month presidency of the European Union Parliament in the second half of 2011 with a cultural program promoting the country both in Europe and around the world was made as early as the beginning of 2010. One of the six main pillars of the program was to establish a youth orchestra inspired by Daniel Barenboim’s Arab-Israeli West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO). The idea came about thanks to the great impression made on the Adam Mickiewicz Institute’s management by the EUYO’s first residency in Poland, which happened thanks to the cooperation of the orchestra with the Łódź Philharmonic Orchestra and the AMI initiated after a concert we performed in the spring of 2008 at the headquarters of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The proposition of the IAM was to bring together young people from Poland and beyond our eastern border in a joint orchestral project.

The I, CULTURE program proposed by the head of the Adam Mickiewicz Institute at the time was intended to present Polish culture in a new format and to highlight the country’s role as an intermediary in cultural exchange between East and West – a place where cultural development has the form of a dialogue in which both the artists and the recipients are active participants. According to the AMI’s concept, the entire program was to eventually comprise almost 400 events in 5 capitals of the European Union (Berlin, Brussels, London, Madrid, Paris) and 5 outside the EU (Kiev, Minsk, Moscow, Beijing, Tokyo). In February 2010, I received a proposal from the initiator of the orchestra, Łukasz Strusiński – music project manager, to undertake the mission to build the ensemble and become its artistic director and first conductor.

First steps

In the early phase of activities, we faced a huge number of questions that lacked answers at the time. The fact that the project had to reach its full potential exactly in the period of the Polish presidency posed an additional challenge. This problem was most accurately put by the then director of the European Union Youth Orchestra, Kim Sargeant. When he first heard about the ICO project, he called our attempts to fast forward to what he has after 30 years of work in such a short period, a “crazy” undertaking.
First action included:

  • Entering a partnership with a professional and experienced international agency to help prepare a tour, find soloists and a first guest conductor, and promote the orchestra in Western Europe;
  • Establishing professional cooperation with the European Union Youth Orchestra that I had worked with in the past and which could be a model for the ICO;
  • Organizing a trial pilot project in the summer of 2010

While looking for the right artistic agency, the priority was that they should know and understand the Polish music environment, and at the same time have extensive international connections and many years of experience in Europe’s leading music markets, be able to efficiently prepare a short tour of major concert halls, and help properly promote the orchestra. The institute agreed to accept the offer of the London-based Van Walsum Management agency I recommended. This choice was determined by a number of facts:

  • the agency had many years of experience in working with artists and concert halls of top international reputation;
  • their staff had experience in running similar types of projects, such as the Verbier Orchestra or the European Union Youth Orchestra;
  • the agency was supposed to provide a Polish coordinator;
  • the agency was owned and managed Stephen Wright – one of the most well-known and respected agents in the world, formerly, among others, head of the Harold Holt agency (now Askonas Holt[2]), the founder of one of the largest music agencies in the world IMG Artists [3], with more than 30 years of experience in working also with Polish artists and institutions (including conductors: Jacek Kaspszyk, Antoni Wit, Jerzy Maksymiuk; with the Polish Chamber Orchestra).

In order to reduce the costs of the pilot project, it was decided to limit international cooperation to Ukraine for the needs of the 2010 project. Adam Mickiewicz Institute called it I, CULTURE Youth Orchestra. As for the orchestra, the decision to invest funds in a very attractive educational program instead of financial remuneration was an important one. Moreover, inspired by the experience of the Sinfonia Iuventus orchestra, it was agreed to accept musicians in a wide age range – from 18 to 30 years old.

Pilot project

The pilot project was divided into three stages:

  1. auditions,
  2. residency,
  3. concerts.

Auditions were held in Kiev, Łódź, Poznań, Wrocław and Gdańsk. The 20-minute audition program included mainly solo works. Each candidate had to prepare two pieces (slow and fast), including one with accompaniment. In addition to this, they were required to present selected excerpts from orchestral parts.It turned out that the auditions announced with a short notice (June-July 2010), which additionally coincided with exam season at universities, did not attract a sufficient number of candidates. As a result, it became necessary to invite students from music universities, mainly from Gdańsk and Warsaw to participate without auditioning.
It was decided that the ensemble would prepare a full symphonic program, including a Polish piece, a piece with a soloist and a symphony. Eventually, it comprised Lithuanian Rhapsody by Mieczysław Karłowicz, Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D major and Piano Concerto No. 2 in C minor by Sergei Rachmaninoff. The orchestra resided at the Academy of Music in Gdańsk on August 22nd to 29th, 2010, and covered twelve sessions over six days. They consisted of three sessions with tutors for each instrument, four sectional sessions with tutors (in the groups of woodwind, brass, string and percussion instruments) and five tutti rehearsals that I conducted. The residency was followed by three concerts – at the Academies of Music in Gdańsk and Katowice and at the Świętokrzyska Philharmonic in Kielce[4].
Already during the pilot project, the aim was to have young people work with the best, internationally renowned artists. A world-class pianist, a great interpreter of Rachmaninoff, Valentina Igoshina, who won the Arthur Rubinstein International Competition for Young Pianists in Bydgoszcz [1993 – editor’s note] and the Sergei Rachmaninoff International Piano Competition in Moscow [1997 – editor’s note], was invited as a soloist. The tutors were also top-class orchestra musicians, which meant that, in addition to preparing orchestral parts, they would be capable of teaching the ethos of working in an orchestra. The tutors were musicians from the best Polish and European orchestras such as: London Symphony Orchestra, Opera National du Lyon, Philharmonia Orchestra in London, National Philharmonic, Chamber Orchestra of Europe[5]. What was unique was that, unlike in most projects of this type, it was possible to engage numerous lecturers (one for each orchestral instrument).

Presidency orchestra

The pilot project proved to be a great educational success. The presidency project in 2011 was to profit from the reflections after the first edition. We decided decision to expand the initiative to all Eastern Partnership the European Union (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine), which was expected to bring benefits such as increased pool of candidates for the presidency in 2011, association with the Eastern Partnership promoted by Poland and stressing Poland’s role as a cultural bridge between the East and West of Europe.

In consultation with the tutors, the format of the audition changed radically. The number of required orchestral excerpts from the repertoire to be performed by the orchestra during the planned concerts was increased; the program intended for the solo instrument was reduced initially to a four-minute and later two-minute „warm-up”. Thanks to this, a significant part of the audition was devoted to the orchestral parts, which not only gave the candidates a chance to be better evaluated, but, above all, was supposed to motivate them to prepare the material flawlessly. I attended all the auditions in person so that I could get to know each candidate and estimate how the individual personality and playing style would translate into the playing in orchestra. The auditions were judged in an extremely objective manner – they were recorded on video, and the final decision to accept a candidate was made by the tutor of their instrument. As a result, more than 50 hours of video recordings were collected on 35 DVDs. The final conclusion was that more attention should be paid to the wind section. For this reason, we looked for opportunities to arrange additional chamber music courses, which would help create a cohesive section, with a certain work ethos, being the core of the entire orchestra. We also wanted to test the candidates who were to perform solo parts during the concert and make a final decision on their selection and casting (as well as find out the condition of their instruments). It was also decided that the actual orchestra project (as opposed to the I, CULTURE Youth Orchestra) would be called the I, CULTURE Orchestra.

The experience of the pilot project made it obvious that the project in 2011 should achieve three goals:

  • become an PR success for Poland,
  • become an artistic and marketing success for the orchestra,
  • create long-term value that would allow the orchestra to operate after the end of the Polish presidency in December 2011.

Achieving the above goals was possible through the development on several levels. On the artistic level, the ensemble was to be a high-quality orchestra, presenting two interesting, logically structured programs, performing in the best concert halls of Europe before extremely demanding audiences, and collaborating with artists whose names and experience would make it recognizable. Sir Neville Marriner – one of the world’s best-known and most respected conductors, with the largest discography in history and the founder of several world-class orchestras – was invited to collaborate as First Guest Conductor. The soloists were to be the most famous musicians such as Arabella Steinbacher, Peter Jablonski, Alena Baeva and Agata Szymczewska. The orchestra was to perform in ten concert halls: four in Poland (in Gdańsk, Krakow, Lublin and Warsaw) and in the main concert halls of European capitals (Berdwaldhallen of the Swedish Radio Orchestra in Stockholm, the National Opera in Kiev, the Royal Festival Hall in London, Teatro Real in Madrid, the Philharmonic Hall in Berlin and the Royal Conservatory in Brussels). As for educational purposes, I, CULTURE Orchestra was to become Europe’s first and largest platform of exchange of experience between the best musicians of Western orchestras and young talents from Eastern Europe. We also wanted to develop the project on a culturological level – its goal was to present the richness of the traditions, history and culture of Eastern European countries to elite audiences on an unprecedented scale, and thus to broaden the horizons of European music lovers. The 110-member orchestra provided a rare opportunity for musicians from countries such as Moldova and Azerbaijan to perform before audiences in some of Europe’s most prestigious concert halls. At the same time, audiences in western countries often had the first opportunity to see their extraordinary potential and musical talent. This message was amplified by the inclusion of Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite in the program, a piece that alludes to the ancient culture that extends to almost all participating countries. In this context, it was also important to showcase Polish culture. For one thing, musicians from eastern countries visited major Polish cities such as Szczecin, Gdańsk, Krakow, Lublin and Warsaw, and learned more about Polish history and culture; moreover, during the orchestra’s residency, they had the opportunity to learn some Polish thanks to the courses we organized for them (which they eagerly took part in). For another thing, audiences in EU and in Kiev had the chance to hear works by Polish composers: the repertoire included Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1 and Symphonie concertante, as well as the Voivoda Symphonic Ballad by Pyotr Tchaikovsky, based on a ballad by Adam Mickiewicz. Furthermore, some of the soloists had Polish roots – Peter Jablonski and Agata Szymczewska, and in most of the venues where the orchestra performed, the Mazurka from Stanisław Moniuszko’s opera Halka was the encore (this was received with enthusiasm by European music critics). The last, vitally important dimension of the project was the socio-political one – the I, CULTURE Orchestra was to promote Poland as a leader of democratic transformation in their region and a leader in creating trans-European cultural initiatives at top level, while emphasizing the country’s central location in the continent.
The I, CULTURE Orchestra project stood out from other such initiatives in a particularly positive way. The ideas behind the establishment of some youth orchestras are not always free of controversy. At least three examples can be mentioned: the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, criticized by the international media for being too close to the socialist regime of Hugo Chavez and his successors; the Baltic Youth Philharmonic, sponsored by Nordstream, the company responsible for the construction of the much-protested Northern Gas Pipeline; the Youth Orchestra of the Commonwealth of Independent States, which, by former soviet countries, is considered (Georgia, among others) a Russian attempt to restore its Soviet-era influence.

The ICO – similarly to Daniel Barenboim’s orchestra – is a project based on positive cultural diplomacy in the purest sense of the word: for it unites, through culture, 7 countries that could not be united by economic or political relations, and brings together countries with very different democratic situation, which are often in diplomatic (Poland and Belarus) or even military conflict (Armenia and Azerbaijan). Significantly, the I, CULTURE Orchestra, as an exemplary project of cultural diplomacy, went even further than its Middle Eastern prototype (the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra), active in Spain (so not in the country where most of its musicians come from). The ICO was created to operate within the participating countries and with the cooperation of all the region’s major cultural institutions: concert halls, philharmonics, opera houses, music universities and even ministries of culture. In this context, it was crucial to enter into cooperation with the European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk. During the residency, our musicians had the opportunity to visit the Gdańsk Shipyard and meet in its famous BHP Hall with veterans of the battle for democracy – including Henryka Krzywonos and Jerzy Borowczak. In this way, young people from across the eastern border were able to directly ask questions about the shape and meaning of the democratic transition of the last 20 years in Poland. We incorporated Dmitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 – a work widely regarded as an expression of protest against Stalinism – into one of the orchestra’s programs.

The Adam Mickiewicz Institute aimed to build the success of the orchestra of the Polish Presidency of the European Union on an extensive promotional campaign highlighting the unique circumstances of the ensemble’s beginnings. From the very beginning, I strived to prioritize high artistic quality that would immediately win the appreciation of even the most picky listeners in the leading concert halls of Europe.
All of the elements cited above contributed to the multi-layered character of the I, CULTURE Orchestra project, which has attracted so much interest in the international media and brought the public to concerts.

The first attempt to implement the above conclusions was to launch auditions in Belarus and Ukraine in November 2010. Already in Kiev, we were pleased to see greater interest in the project and better preparation of the candidates, which was a positive result of the pilot project. Auditions in Georgia, Moldova, Armenia and Azerbaijan were held in February and March 2011, followed by the selection of musicians in Poland (in Katowice, Wrocław, Poznań, Gdańsk and Warsaw). The entire recruitment process was completed before the end of March 2011.

As I already mentioned, the organizers were aware of the importance of chamber courses for wind instrumentalists, which were supposed to be held before the orchestra’s actual residency. Thanks to the extraordinary support and hospitality of the Szczecin authorities, such a course took place in April 2011[6]. For a week, the musicians worked with guest tutors on a chamber music program in various ensembles to eventually participate in two concerts. To motivate them even more, there was one extra candidate for each instrument. Only after the courses had been completed and the instrumentalists had been tested in a concert situation were final decisions on cast made. The organization of the courses was partnered by YAMAHA which provided instruments. The incorporation of Wojciech Kilar’s Quintet for Woodwind Instruments into the program was also a great success. In consequence, several lecturers from Western Europe started to promote it at their university courses.

Simultaneously, a lot of work was done to promote the orchestra. Public relations specialists hired by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute launched an extensive publicity campaign in international media about the formation of the orchestra. What is interesting, the multi-faceted nature of the project helped reach more media and journalists. Information about the debut and plans of the orchestra were published not only in cultural, but also in politically oriented media. This was best exemplified by the long articles in magazines such as the New Statesman[7], Diplomat and Ceasefire[8], which devoted a great deal of space to the political context of the project, and thus allowed the orchestra to reach an even wider audience.

Concert tour

We decided that the concert tour would consist of two parts – a summer and an autumn tour. The summer part began with a three-week residency in Gdańsk in August. What was vital was that on the first day of the courses we played recordings of the world’s best youth orchestras before the musicians, to make them aware of the high level they would have to attain in a short period of time. Following a series of rehearsals, which were also attended by Sir Neville Marriner, the orchestra entered the concert studio, where some of the repertoire was recorded for promotional use by foreign radio stations. This was of great benefit in terms of quality and precision of the orchestra’s playing. After the residency ended, the orchestra went on a short concert tour, performing at philharmonic halls in Gdańsk and Krakow and Berwaldhallen in Stockholm. To strengthen publicity wherever possible, the orchestra performed at local festivals, including: Solidarity of Arts in Gdańsk, Music in Old Kraków and the Baltic Sea Festival[9] in Stockholm. The latter was a particular challenge, as the ensemble performed alongside the Swedish Radio Orchestra, the Marinsky Theater Orchestra from St. Petersburg and the Baltic Youth Philharmonic. To the huge success of the I, CULTURE Orchestra was that the Stockholm concert was recorded and made available to radio stations in Europe. The material, presented in Slovenia, Germany, Belgium and the UK (by the BBC), among others, helped boost publicity before the second, longer fall tour.

In mid-October, the orchestra performed again, this time in Lublin. After the concert at the Lublin Philharmonic, the ensemble traveled to Kiev to play at the National Opera of Ukraine. By then it had become standard for the orchestra to perform to full houses and be rewarded with standing ovations. The tour around western Europe was inaugurated with the first concert under Sir Neville Marriner in Berlin on November 2[10]. Nearly 1,500 listeners gathered in the concert hall of the Berlin Philharmonic gave the orchestra a standing ovation. Sir Simon Rattle was invited to the dress rehearsal, and he spoke highly of the quality of the new ensemble.

The tour continued at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels (November 4)[11], the Royal Festival Hall in London (November 6)[12], the Teatro Real in Madrid (November 8)[13]; the tour concluded on November 11 with a concert at the National Philharmonic in Warsaw[14]. Again, efforts were made to ensure that all of these events fell into one of two categories: 1) concerts included in the main year-round calendar of a given concert hall (this was the case with the London and Brussels institutions); 2) concerts included in a prestigious cycle with other already world-renowned orchestras. Positioning a newly-formed orchestra such as the I, CULTURE Orchestra, in one of these two options was an additional endorsement of the ensemble and attracted more listeners. At the Berlin Philharmonic, the ICO’s performance, conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, inaugurated the season of the annual Musikalische Akademie series, organized by the Konzert-Direktion Hans Adler agency. In Madrid, the orchestra’s concert was the first-ever event in the Las Noches del Real series, a new cycle of symphonic concerts at the Royal Opera House.

In the planning phase, we were looking for something that would inspire ICO musicians and give them a sense of creating and achieving something special. The Royal Festival Hall in London[15] certainly had this type of potential. It was a great challenge – for this is a hall where, since the political changes 20 years ago, no Polish orchestra had performed a symphonic program (despite the fact that major Polish orchestras go to the UK a lot). The I, CULTURE Orchestra’s concert gathered over 1,200 people and received some of the best reviews of the entire concert tour.

The Final

On November 11, 2011, the I, CULTURE Orchestra 2011 project concluded with a gala concert at the Polish National Philharmonic[16] in the presence of First Lady Anna Komorowska.
The overall summary of the project was impressive. Most importantly, the I, CULTURE Orchestra project became the only „pillar project” of the I, CULTURE program that is continued to this day – six years after the end of the Polish presidency[17].


[1] https://baltic-sea-philharmonic.eu/music/archive/archive-2011/ [DOA: Feb 19 2021]

[2] https://www.askonasholt.com/ [DOA: Feb 19 2021]

[3] https://imgartists.com/ [DOA: Feb 19 2021]

[4] https://iam.pl/sites/default/files/raporty/09-10_pl/files/assets/basic-html/page87.html [DOA: Feb 19 2021]

[5] Meyrick Alexander, Rod Franks, Peter Thomas, Neville Marriner.
Source: https://culture.pl/en/artist/i-culture-orchestra [DOA: Feb 23 2021]

[6] https://radioszczecin.pl/172,322&idpi=4&idxi=70510&go=morelistinsert&si=408 [DOA: Feb 19 2021]

[7] https://www.newstatesman.com/classical/2011/11/culture-orchestra-music-europe [DOA: Feb 23 2021]

[8] https://ceasefiremagazine.co.uk/i-culture-orchestra/ [DOA: Feb 23 2021]

[9] https://culture.pl/en/tag/baltic-sea-festival [DOA Feb 23 2021]

[10] For an interview with Neville Marriner about this project, see https://culture.pl/en/video/sir-neville-marriner-on-conducting-i-culture-orchestra-video [DOA Feb 23 2021].

[11] https://culture.pl/pl/wydarzenie/i-culture-orchestra-w-stolicy-belgii [DOA Feb 23 2021]

[12] https://culture.pl/pl/artykul/i-culture-orchestra-w-londynskiej-royal-festival-hall [DOA Feb 23 2021]

[13] https://culture.pl/pl/wydarzenie/i-culture-orchestra-w-madrycie [DOA Feb 23 2021]

[14] Video footage of rehearsal preparations for the aforementioned concert is available at: https://culture.pl/pl/wideo/proby-i-culture-orchestra-przed-koncertem-w-warszawie-wideo [DOA Feb 23 2021].

[15] https://culture.pl/pl/artykul/i-culture-orchestra-w-londynskiej-royal-festival-hall [DOA Feb 23 2021]

[16] Excerpts from the concert are available here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJDd6ollNuY
[DOA Feb 23 2021]

[17] https://culture.pl/en/artist/i-culture-orchestra [DOA Feb 23 2021]


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