Available for birthdays, weddings and bar mitzvahs... one of Europe's leading orchestras

Neglected by the state, the Belgrade Philharmonic is struggling to survive
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The Independent Culture

The Belgrade Philharmonic Orchestra has lived through a lot in the past 20 years. Yugoslavia has been reinvented in different, ever-shrinking configurations, finally dissolving altogether with the divorce of Serbia and Montenegro. Belgrade has gone from being the capital of the West's favourite communist state to a warmongering pariah, target of 78 days of Nato bombing raids, to being the latest applicant to join the EU. Through it all the band played on.

So it is ironic, now Serbia has at last a real prospect of rejoining the West, that the city's finest flowering of classical Western culture should be struggling to survive. But that was the sub-text of an advertisement that recently appeared in the city's papers, to readers' consternation.

"The national Philharmonic orchestra, with 85 years of tradition and a rich repertoire, can now play at your house for a reasonable fee," the advertisement ran. The 96 "perfectly trained musicians" offered to play "at weddings, funerals, baptisms, birthdays, divorces and saints' days... We have suitable attire for all occasions."

Could the mighty Belgrade Phil be serious? Blasting away at bar mitzvahs, in full penguin get-up?

"This was our way of drawing the attention of a broader public to the problems of the Philharmonic, to somehow present our financial problems in an absurd, Monty Python way," the orchestra's director, Ivan Tasovac, 42, explained.

Because today the orchestra is in serious trouble. Having climbed a hill since the end of the Yugoslav wars, clambering back from near-extinction, the orchestra has found itself sliding down another slippery slope because of the global recession. Serbia has slashed its culture budget from €78m (£66m) to €56m, of which only about 1.5 per cent goes to the orchestra. Like other important national institutions including the National Theatre and the National Museum, it is staring into the abyss.

Yet while high culture languishes, the government pours millions of euros into commercial events such as a pop festival called EXIT in the northern city of Novi Sad and a popular folk trumpet festival held in the town of Guca in central Serbia, events that that attract hundreds of thousands of young people from all over former Yugoslavia and beyond. Millions are spent subsidising concerts by huge stars such as Santana (in July) and Madonna (in August), which are sure to be attended by tens of thousands of fans.

Critics complain that financing events of this sort, although they undoubtedly boost tourism, is a misuse of the state's culture budget. Meanwhile the members of the Belgrade Philharmonic are paid a pittance by international standards. The top musicians earn some €700 per month, but most earn only €350. "It's no wonder," said Mr Tasovac, "that, in order to survive, members of the orchestra moonlight at jam sessions, or with popular folk music singers".

Everything is relative, of course: with EU membership beckoning, the orchestra has begun to compare its pay packets gloomily to those of its counterparts further to the west. In the days of President Slobodan Milosevic, the salary of a player was the equivalent of a few pounds a month, while the central Belgrade building that is its headquarters was crumbling away. It was also used for end-of-year children's concerts, and parents who came to hear their little ones tootle worried that the building might collapse around their ears. Seats were broken, as was the air conditioning system, and both the performers and the audience practically suffocated.

After Milosevic fell in 2000 following the Kosovo war, the Philharmonic underwent an unprecedented revival. Its home was substantially rebuilt and the auditorium completely renovated. Today the air conditioning is perfect, defying the scorching heat of June in Belgrade. The lightly-perfumed white marble halls echo with the footsteps of an ensemble that has an average age of 30. Many of the young musicians were educated abroad, like Mr Tasovac himself, and began their careers outside Serbia, returning after 2000 in the hope that the future would be brighter. Since then the orchestra has toured the world and played before the most sophisticated audiences, and has also hosted famous artists from abroad, including Zubin Mehta, Sarah Chang and Nigel Kennedy.

"But all this is in danger now," said Mr Tasovac. Hence the "Monty Python" advertisement.

The effect was almost instantaneous. Within 36 hours a Facebook support group had sprung up with several thousand members. "With the advertisement, we galvanised our audience," he said. "The people who greeted the downfall of Milosevic with great enthusiasm, the same people who last year elected the pro-European Boris Tadic Serbia's President." At the same time the advertisement attracted a surge of support from new, younger music fans.

Classical music lovers now hope that Mr Tasovac's professionalism, marketing skills and charisma will enable the orchestra to make it through the crisis. And the wit of the "we will play anywhere" ad was intrinsic to the orchestra's new appeal – in the same spirit, according to Mr Tasovac, as the jocular protests against Milosevic in the 1990s, which in his view had a greater role in precipitating his overthrow by a popular revolt than the isolation of Serbia by the West during the 1990s.

To say thank you for the overwhelming show of support, the orchestra recently held a "Concert of Gratitude" at its headquarters, playing to a packed hall and tens of thousands more who listened in via the internet. "During the 1990s, middle-class values almost died here," commented one Belgrade resident, Mirjana Jankovic, 53. "It's good to see them staging a revival."

"I know classical music is as popular in Serbia as roast pig in Tehran," Mr Tasovac added. "In that sense, Serbia is no different from other countries. But with a little humour we have drawn the public's attention to what is one of the best Serbian brands, and its financial problems."