The quiet work of diplomacy at the United Nations headquarters often makes for a dry atmosphere. But after sundown, it’s a whole different scene, thanks to a robust after-work culture of clubs — much as you would find at an American high school — under the umbrella of the UN Staff Recreation Council.
Staff members can join a Russian book club, compete at table tennis or pull a chair up to a mystics roundtable. For those who find solace and joy in playing a musical instrument or singing, choices include the UN Singers, the UN Symphony Orchestra and the UN Chamber Music Society of the United Nations Staff Recreation Council.
Founded in 2016 by its current president, Brenda Vongova, the Chamber Music Society doesn’t fool around: its most recent performance, held at Carnegie Hall on Oct. 15, was a benefit concert for Village Health Works, in Burundi. Its next concert is Dec. 1.
Colleagues know Vongova as a staff member in Secretary-General António Guterres’s office who has also worked for three presidents of the General Assembly. Fellow musicians know her as a pianist who has mastered among other works Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2.
“I realized that at the official events and receptions for events such as World Refugee Day and UN Human Rights Day there was a lack of music,” she said in an interview. “So I decided to pull in strong solo-level musicians to form a small chamber music society.”
The group’s goal is twofold: to share knowledge and appreciation of classical music on the UN campus and to raise public awareness about the UN’s values and work.
Chamber orchestras by definition are small and lack conductors, requiring members to listen and respond to one another — not unlike the UN itself, Vongova pointed out.
“Chamber music is almost like a dialogue among the musicians at a very intimate level,” she said. “Each member of the orchestra is a leader, and everyone is equal.
“Music is all about dialogue. It’s a universal language of peace. In order to make a chamber-music piece work, you have to be constantly listening. The moment you stop listening to the others, you will be playing out of sync.”
The 14-member group, which receives no funding, performs once or twice a month. Its members largely practice on their own before coming together for a dress rehearsal. They are not paid, and their performances usually help highlight UN-related issues and humanitarian causes.
The video above shows the Society performing the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s “Amaro Porano Jaha Chae” — “All That My Heart Desires” — arranged for the group, with the tabla played by Craig Klonowski. The performance was done for a benefit concert for Rohingya refugees, on May, 25, 2018.
Vongova said her passion for music helped her balance the demands of the group with her long hours in the Secretariat.
“I start practicing usually at 10 p.m. and rehearse until midnight. I have a headset for my keyboard at home so my neighbors don’t get upset. But it doesn’t feel like work. It’s like my blood. I can’t live without music,” she said.
The group’s harpist and countertenor, David Yardley, is a political counselor in the Australian mission to the UN. He’s been with the chamber-music society since its inception and hopes to continue until his post ends in 2020. He says the mission is “an extremely supportive and understanding partner” of his musical pursuits.
Besides playing with the group, Yardley composes songs set to medieval lyrics to reimagine what medieval music sounded like. His work is often featured on the society’s program.
“I try to build off the medieval aesthetic and make it speak to a modern audience,” he said, including people at the UN, who might be surprised to recognize some of the institution’s values embodied in medieval lyrics.
“Medieval music is a higher language and an international language,” Yardley said. “Its subject matter is aspiration and values of the heart. It also moves across borders, which I learned in my previous posting in Afghanistan.” While working with students studying traditional Afghan music from the 14th century, Yardley said they all realized how many similarities existed between it and European medieval music.
This shows, he said, “the UN’s power to move through cultural boundaries and get us to coalesce around shared values.”
As for his neighbors here in New York, “they have heard me play and often ask to come in and listen. Of course, unlike Brenda I’m not practicing at midnight!”
As the adage goes, all that practice has already gotten Vongova and Yardley to Carnegie Hall. So what’s next?
“Last year, my goal was to perform in Lincoln Center. This year, my goal was to perform at Carnegie Hall,” Vongova said. “And next year my goal is to . . . win a Grammy and donate all the funds to UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency] or the UN or another UN entity!”