Orchestral manoeuvres make their mark

It is a dream team of international musicians, playing together for less than two weeks

It is a dream team of international musicians, playing together for less than two weeks. Lara Marlowe in Paris sees the World Philharmonic Orchestra prepare to return after an 18-year hiatus

'The sky was full of stars," the orchestra conductor, composer and piano teacher recalls. "I thought how marvellous it would be if the stars were planes, and in every plane was a musician, and they were all coming to play together."

Legrand and her then husband Marc Verriere realised her dream in 1985, when the World Philharmonic Orchestra (WPO) played for the first time, at the Nobel prize ceremony in Stockholm. Though their marriage was short-lived, Legrand and Verriere remained close and again brought together musicians from all over the world in Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo and Montreal. Then both were distracted by other projects, and the orchestra stopped for 18 years.

The WPO was resurrected last Wednesday at a concert in the courtyard of Les Invalides, followed by another concert at Reims Cathedral yesterday and the Palais des Congrès in Paris this evening.

Wednesday's WPO concert was one of 18,000 involving some 800,000 musicians across France for the 25th annual Fête de la Musique.

The WPO is an ephemeral creation, lasting only the 12 days that its 112 musicians spend in France. Each will return to his or her own national orchestra, and will never play with the international group again.

The great orchestra conductor Arturo Toscanini liked conducting impromptu orchestras. Musicians who didn't know each other paid more attention to the music and fellow performers, he said.

The musicians who have gathered in Paris for the 2006 WPO agree with Toscanini. "Maybe playing together only once is ideal," says Camilo Benavides, principal violinist with the Bogota Philharmonic Orchestra. "You don't have time to make enemies."

"You don't get too comfortable," adds Katie Buckley, an American with the Iceland Symphony Orchestra. "That can be a problem in an orchestra. You need to be on the edge of your seat." Double bass player Victoria Jones flew 27 hours from New Zealand to join the WPO. "It's already worth it," she said before the first rehearsal started.

"This is awesome," said Ivan Rodrick from the Delhi Symphony Orchestra. "Every musician in the world should have this opportunity at least once."

The woman who made it happen, Francoise Legrand, is a quirky, mother-like figure who spoils her piano students in Paris with gifts of flowers and fresh-laid eggs from her house in the country. Legrand once contacted NASA in the hope of arranging a concert in outer space, but weightlessness was a problem.

Legrand provides the ideas and musical knowledge, Verriere the organisation and ground work. The day after her vision of a World Philharmonic, he began researching how to recruit top-flight musicians from around the world.

They discovered the Musical America directory, which ranks classical musicians on an A, B or C basis. "We were only interested in the As," Legrand says. The couple then contacted orchestras in more than 80 countries, asking to borrow top musicians for short periods. Their utopian slogan was "Music and Peace".

Martin Johnson, principal cellist with the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, believes in the WPO's message.

"I am sure it helps break down barriers and stereotypes, and that can only be a good thing," he says. "I'm certainly looking forward to the Dvorák symphony. It's one of my favourites. Perhaps I'll reach a new level, see it in a different way." Bahman Mehabadi, principal violinist with the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, doesn't want to talk about tension between his government and the West over Iran's nuclear programme. "I'm a musician; I try to forget such problems," he says. But the trip to France was important to him "because this is an international orchestra and it's the first time Iran has been invited." The 2006 WPO is conducted by Yutaka Sado, the director of the Kobé Opera who was chief assistant to Leonard Bernstein.

In one sense, national orchestras are already world philharmonics, because they recruit foreigners to fill key positions. More than half of the 10 cellists in the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra are non-Irish, says Martin Johnson, himself a British citizen. The harpist Masayo Matsuo is Japanese, but plays with the Stockholm Philharmonic.

Katie Buckley, also a harpist, was studying at the Eastman School of Music in New York when she saw an advertisement on the internet for a job in Reykjavík. "There are not many harp jobs available," she explains. "I expect to stay a long time." When musicians are thrown together, they instinctively sort themselves according to instruments. "We have our own sort of secret society," laughs Jones, the double bass player from New Zealand. "We were all carrying our bow cases, so we recognised each other." Within hours, she befriended bass players from the Czech Republic, Ukraine, Georgia, Bosnia and Peru.

The WPO's harpists wore gold harp pendants round their necks and discussed Symphonie Fantastique by Berlioz, one of the pieces in the WPO's instant repertoire. "We were talking about how the second harp part is actually harder than the first harp," Buckley explained. The orchestra will also play Debussy, Bizet, Ravel and Saint-Saëns.

In the WPO's early years, Legrand and Verriere gave proceeds from concerts to charities that helped children. This time, they decided to give the money directly to child musicians. They chose five poor countries: India, Romania, Thailand, Tunisia and Venezuela. Legrand travelled to each, seeking talented children between the ages of six and 12. Each winner receives €10,000 over three years, and a new instrument.

When Legrand and Verriere decided to resurrect the WPO, they turned to Louis Bricard, who heads the French classical music competition Les Victoires de la Musique. While Legrand auditioned child prodigies around the world, Bricard and Verriere lined up sponsors - the French bank CIC and the Lagardère Foundation - and persuaded most of the world's best known singers and conductors to lend their names to the endeavour.

Roberto Alagna, Charles Aznavour, Wilhelmenia Fernandez, Barbara Hendricks, Lorin Maazel, Jessye Norman, Seiji Ozawa and Mstislav Rostropovich are members of the WPO's honorary committee.

In Venezuela, Legrand found a little girl named Alexia Alvarez, a viola player, through a network of child orchestras established over 30 years by Jose Antonio Abreu to save children from the streets. Some 260,000 children are now enrolled in Abreu's music schools, which receive €4.75 million a year in subsidies.

In Bucharest, Legrand was surprised to see children walking out with their music cases before the audition started. "Little Andrei is in there," one explained. "He always wins the competitions - there's no point trying." Andrei Ionita (12) has already won 14 music competitions. His mother Mihaela, a widowed accountant, came with him to Paris. Mother and son rely on each other: she carries his cello until her back aches; he translates between English and Romanian for her. When Ionita was just a year old, Mihaela says, he sang with her - without words, but in perfect tune.

Ionita started learning the piano at age five, switching to the cello at nine. He is first in every subject at school and says he's not sure he wants to be a professional musician. "I don't really have time to do sports and have friends. My childhood is running away," he says, without sadness. When the boy begins to play in a rehearsal room at Les Invalides, the effect is mesmerising.

Legrand always chooses a local jury of music teachers for the children's scholarships. She asks them to judge with their backs to the stage "because it's too easy to be influenced by a child's pretty face." The first time Legrand heard Ionita play, without seeing him, she was convinced there was a mistake over the applicant's age. "I heard a strong sound, a very musical vibrato - a mature musician." In two or three years, she believes he could win the Rostropovitch competition, the most difficult for cellists.

Belief in a universal language of music is the principle underlying the WPO. Twelve-year-old Ionita defines it more articulately than his adult colleagues: "Music transmits something you cannot convey with words: feeling," he says. "A person's nationality and language don't matter."

As the musicians rehearse in the Église de Saint Louis des Invalides before their first performance, they draw lots to determine the hierarchy of each section of the orchestra. It can be a humbling experience, for in their home orchestras, each is the principal musician.

The 17th-century church resounds with disparate, magical sounds as wind, strings and brass musicians warm up, some familiarising themselves with a new instrument. The banners of armies conquered by France hang in the nave above. Finally, the oboist rises to give the A, to tune the orchestra. "This is the most extraordinary moment," Legrand says. "You hear the same sound, and it's the A of the world, the A of peace."