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Can the Sarajevo Philharmonic hang on?

The siege may be over, but a host of post-Communist problems now threaten Bosnia's cultural institutions.

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — During the worst days of the Bosnian war, when the city of Sarajevo was under continual siege, members of the city’s philharmonic orchestra practiced in the freezing cold by candlelight and dodged sniper bullets to attend rehearsals.

Times have certainly changed. On Feb. 19, the elegantly dressed orchestra — full now of fresh, young faces — took to the gilded stage of Bosnia’s National Theater to perform Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer and Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony to an audience of well-heeled Sarajevans.

During the nearly four-year-long siege, from 1992 to 1996, as snipers and shells terrorized the population, the Sarajevo Philharmonic played on, becoming in the process a symbol of the city’s determination and bravery.

Today, threats faced by the orchestra are of a more mundane nature: the challenges of staying financially afloat and building new audiences in a post-Communist era of scant state support for classical music.

American conductor Charles Ansbacher, who conducted the Feb. 19 concert, has been working with the Sarajevo Philharmonic since the war. In 1993, President Bill Clinton appointed Ansbacher’s wife, Swanee Hunt, as the American ambassador to Austria. The former conductor of the Colorado Springs Symphony, Ansbacher arrived in Vienna planning to immerse himself in that city’s rich cultural scene.

Instead, he found himself drawn to Bosnia, where he decided to help in the only way he knew how, through music. Over the last decade and a half, Ansbacher has worked with orchestras in a number of transitional and post-conflict societies and says music is a "universal language of emotion" that is particularly resonant in difficult times. To watch a video about Ansbacher's pursuits in Beirut, click here.

In Bosnia, he and his wife helped organize new instruments for the philharmonic members and organized for the orchestra to play in Austria.

“From then to now, obviously the orchestra has gotten enormously better,” Ansbacher says, recalling how, in his early visits, there used to be a sign warning that no weapons were allowed on stage. “At first, we wondered if it was strange to be bringing gifts of cellos and violins to a place that didn’t have food or water.” But, in the end, they decided, it was as important to nurture the soul as the body. “The idea was to lift the spirit.”

Today, the challenges facing the Sarajevo Philharmonic are more in tune with those facing other classical music institutions around the world. In Bosnia, as in other post-Communist countries, the massive state infrastructure that once supported classical music education and performance institutions has diminished or disappeared. Instead of Mozart and Bach, the country’s radio and television stations now bombard youth with homegrown turbo-folk and American pop.

“I think they’ve been focused on surviving and they’ve been less focused on how do you make this available to a new generation, because before, they haven’t needed to go out and build audiences,” says Ansbacher, the founder and conductor of the Boston Landmarks Orchestra, who still comes almost yearly to conduct in Sarajevo. Still, each time he returns, he sees little signs of change. This year, for the first time since the war, the elevators in the National Theater worked.