‘We’ve created something wonderful’: Orchestre des Nations marks 10 years of musical diplomacy

Antoine Marguier, founder, conductor and musical director, Orchèstre des Nations (Credit: Orchèstre des Nations)

The Orchestre des Nations will celebrate its 10th anniversary at a concert held at Geneva's Victoria Hall on Friday 2 September. Founder and musical director, Antoine Marguier, talks to Geneva Solutions about cultural diplomacy, iconic concerts, and why “there's never been a dull moment” for the orchestra that's become synonymous with international Geneva.

Sixty-five musicians pick up their instruments and begin playing on a wide cement boulevard that threads between North and South Korea. Notes of the centuries-old, UNESCO-listed, Korean folk tune Arirang fill the air. The audience is sparse but then this concert – in the demilitarised zone that divides the peninsula – was never expected to draw a large crowd.

The date is October 2016 and Antoine Marguier, founder and director of Geneva’s Orchestre des Nations, has brought his band of amateur musicians to play a series of concerts in South Korea under the banner “music for peace”. On one of the last days of the tour, the Swiss-French conductor manages to secure an impromptu gig in one of the world’s most fortified border territories.

“That is cultural diplomacy,” Marguier explains. “As musicians, we’re not much, just a group of troubadours. But through music, we show that we all speak the same universal language.”

The 53 year-old is drinking mint tea on a sunny terrace next to Geneva’s Victoria Hall, where the Orchestre des Nations will mark its anniversary – ten years of musical diplomacy – on Friday 2 September. The concert will star the prodigious 84 year-old French-Italian conductor, Roberto Benzi.

Marguier, a long-time clarinette player for the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande before picking up his baton, describes Benzi as a “musical godfather” and mentor after meeting the maestro during his holidays in a remote French village as a child. Years later, he helped Marguier to launch his second career as a conductor.

The pair will share the podium on Friday – something of a rarity in a world where egos come first –, with Benzi opening the first half with Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, “La Pastorale”, a piece he first conducted at the grand age of 11 at London’s Royal Albert Hall.

For a humble group of troubadours, as Marguier puts it, the orchestra has managed to draw in a star-studded line up over the years – Grammy awards-winning violinist Maxim Vengerov, French cellist Gautier Capuçon,  and Khatia Buniatishvili, the young Georgian pianist – to play alongside its enthusiastic group amateur players. All thanks to Marguier’s contact book built up over years of performing and conducting with fellow artists in concert halls worldwide.

Open to musicians from both local and International Geneva, Marguier says the orchestra is the embodiment of efforts to bridge these two communities and bring people from different backgrounds together through a shared passion for music. “Our musicians come to play and make new encounters. They speak the same language. If we can create this dialogue through music, then why can’t we recreate this elsewhere?”

The idea came about in 2009 when Marguier, who teaches at Geneva’s University of Music (Haute école de musique), set out to create an orchestra that catered to musicians that may at one stage, like many of his students, have thought about playing professionally but went on to pursue other careers. “There were already many amateur orchestras in Geneva, but none that offered amateurs the opportunity to play to a professional standard,” he says.

Geneva’s international quarter, its international organisations and NGOs, were full of musicians with hidden talents, as Marguier soon found out. He went knocking on the door of the United Nations, as well as those of other NGOs, and two years later, in 2011, he launched the Orchestre des Nations with 30 musicians.

Despite its strong ties with the UN (the director general of its office in Geneva, Tatiana Valovaya is the honorary president), it is not subsidised by the organisation and it was important for Marguier that the orchestra was not seen as being exclusive to its employees.  “We are an orchestra of nations, not the orchestra of the United Nations.”

Over the last 10 years, they have played 100 concerts, including to audiences across the world. In 2016, the orchestra bade Ban Ki Moon farewell as the South Korean stepped down as UN secretary general, with an emotional tribute at the Victoria Hall.

Its altruistic mission grew with it over the years as the foundation partnered with international organisations, including the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM) – but equally local Swiss associations such as Swiss Solidarity and Graines de Paix, an educational foundation – to raise funds.

For Marguier, the orchestra and its concerts create a meeting point not only for its musicians but also its audiences. It epitomises what Geneva does best: it acts as a nerve centre where people come together and connections are made. “We are a living interface of International Geneva.”

In 2015, says Marguier giving another example, it organised two concerts for the bicentenary of Geneva joining the Swiss Confederation – one at the Geneva concert hall and the other at the Palais des Nations – to encourage a cross-over between the city’s local and expat populations. Geneva officials attended the event at the UN headquarters and vice versa.

As we’re asked to free the table for lunch orders and prepare to leave, Marguier is keen to steer away from what can easily make the project sound like a public relations exercise for the city. His goal for the next decade is the same as when he started – to create “magical moments” with passionate amateur musicians, who he says often put more of that “extra something” into their performances than those in professional orchestras who are paid to play. “I’m not a dictator, but we work hard,” he laughs.

The Orchestre des Nations playing at the Victoria Hall. (Credit: Martin Good)

The Orchestre des Nations now counts around 65 musicians who meet for two major concerts each year. Though Covid largely put a stop to their rehearsals and shows between 2020 and 2022, they managed to pull off a logistical stunt last autumn in the streets of Geneva’s Paquis district with musicians performing from balconies above.

“We make sure there’s never a dull moment,” Marguier says, remembering another concert in Brighton, UK, in 2017 in aid of Unicef’s war orphans appeal. Freddy Kempf, the British-Japanese pianist, played Mozart’s famed Concerto No.21 at the seaside town’s iconic Dome concert hall – Marguier dressed in a Union Jack waistcoat for the occasion.

Up until now, the orchestra has received little financial help and survived largely off ticket sales, the goodwill of its “Friends of the Orchestra”, and a team of three staff who work pro bono for the foundation. For its upcoming concert on 2 September, it has secured funds from La Loterie Romande, but Marguier would like to attract more donors in the coming years “so that it can continue to raise the profile of International Geneva”.

For this musician and conductor, who grew up in a small French village close to Switzerland, with his father’s accordion and town hall concerts his main sources of any musical culture, it’s also about “democratising” classical music – though he hates to phrase it that way. Great masterpieces by the likes of Brahms and Beethoven say it best, as Friday’s concert, will prove. “I’m proud, over the last 10 years, we’ve created something wonderful.”

  • The Orchestre des Nations is playing at 8pm at the Victoria Hall, Geneva, on Friday 2 September.