BY KYLE MACMILLAN | FOR SUN-TIMES MEDIA
During the bloody Balkan wars in the 1990s, when the once Soviet-influenced Yugoslavia fractured into several smaller countries, the Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra had to essentially cease operations.
But through hard work and the help of famed conductor Zubin Mehta and other supporters, the orchestra has not only regained its former luster, but it is also preparing for its first-ever visit to the United States. The milestone four-city tour will begin Oct. 6 in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall and conclude Oct. 9 in Carnegie Hall.
“The musicians are looking forward to it so much,” said Mahai Tang, who has been chief conductor since 2010. “As the first music group (from Serbia) which has the honor to come to the United States to share their music, everyone has gotten very excited.”
Founded in 1923 by conductor Stevan Hristic, the Belgrade Philharmonic was considered by the 1960s to be one of Europe’s top orchestras. It had the advantage of hosting many famed Soviet artists, who were not allowed to travel farther West.
But with fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia, the orchestra suffered along with everyone else in the region. Many of its musicians departed, and it all but stopped giving concerts.
The beginning of the Philharmonic’s rebirth came in 2001 with the appointment of Ivan Tasovac (now Serbia’s Minister of Culture) as the orchestra’s administrative director. His tenure, acting general manager Darko Krstic said in an e-mail, “caused a radical shift in the general functioning of the institution and the work of the orchestra, which gradually put the Belgrade Philharmonic back on the map of major European orchestras.”
In addition to recruiting a new roster of internationally trained musicians, whose average age was 28 at the time, Tasovac persuaded conductors such as Mehta and Kirill Petrenko and notable guest soloists like violinist Nigel Kennedy and percussionist Evelyn Glennie to collaborate with the ensemble.
In 2004, the orchestra established a foundation to raise funds to improve the orchestra and expand its activities. A year later, Mehta helped start a fund bearing his name for the maintenance and purchase of musical instruments, which had deteriorated to what Krstic called “amateur level.” The maestro donated his fees from a pair of guest-conducting appearances that year to launch the campaign.
Five years later during a visit to the orchestra, Mehta called on leading political and business leaders in Serbia to support a new concert hall for the orchestra. Its current venue has just 201 seats, too few to accommodate the demand for tickets, and it lacks many of the amenities that contemporary audiences demand.
Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra Conductor Mahai Tang; Baritone Željko Lučić WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 6 WHERE: Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan TICKETS: $25-$65 INFO (312) 294-3000; cso.org
A state-of-the-art hall has become the driving goal of the foundation, which was renamed in the maestro’s honor in 2010. An American fund-raising arm was instituted in 2012, and the orchestra’s tour is being undertaken not only to raise awareness of the orchestra but also to gain support in this country for the proposed facility.
“The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra’s tour,” Krstic said, “is an ideal opportunity to draw attention to an orchestra consisting of young people, full of energy and potential, who cannot make any progress without a new building.”
Famed Serbian baritone Zeljko Lucic will join the orchestra in Chicago, singing arias from the operas, “Macbeth” and “Rigoletto.” In addition, Tang will lead the orchestra in performances of Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s “Slavonic March” and Jean Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2 in D major.
The symphony showcases Sibelius’ musical character, but it also speaks to the tumultuous history of the composer’s native Finland. The Chinese-born conductor, who previously served as chief conductor of the Finnish National Opera, said the work resonates with him and the orchestra musicians who come from countries with their own difficult pasts.
“This music suits them very well,” Tang said of the Belgrade Philharmonic, “and it also suits me, because I come from China. What happened to China is unbelievable in its modern history. We had bitterness and happiness — they are all mixed together, and that’s all in this music.”