An Orchestra Under Siege Falls Out of Aid Spotlight

Once a favorite of Western benefactors, the Sarajevo Philharmonic is running out of funds, despite its efforts to maintain normalcy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THEY'RE not snobby, they don't do cocktail parties afterward, and they have to wear overcoats and hats during performances because their concert hall has no heat.

For music aficionados and besieged residents in search of an escape, the Sarajevo Philharmonic Orchestra has nothing to do with high society and everything to do with sanity. But the orchestra, once a fashionable cause cbre for Western aid givers, is running out of grant money and may soon have to shut down.

``We have money for one more concert,'' says Emir Muhanovic, director of the orchestra since 1973. ``We're going to perform it on Jan. 26,'' commemorating the 1,000th day of the siege. Then ``that's it,'' Mr. Muhanovic says.

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The orchestra, which had 100 players from around the world before the war, is now down to 45 determined Sarajevo residents dressed in ragged, ill-fitting tuxedos.

During one practice session in December 1993, the concert hall was hit by five shells, but no one was hurt.

Seven of its musicians have been killed, and seven have been wounded in the war, but the orchestra has continued to hold regular concerts every month and a half and to attract a respectable number of listeners.

``It's like a time machine. It brings the audience to another country, another place,'' one musician explains. ``You feel like a free man.''

The orchestra had many friends during the height of the siege, but donations have slowed as Bosnia's war has dragged on. Master conductor Zubin Mehta gave the orchestra $10,000 of his own money and made an appeal to the world's musicians to aid them.

The Soros Foundation gave the orchestra an $8,000 grant, and Mr. Mehta and other musicians helped arrange a 15-concert tour of Europe for the orchestra last September to raise money.

But those funds have been slowly used to pay salaries and electricity bills as Sarajevo has fallen from the world's disaster spotlight.

``We've spent it. We perform concerts for free, and we're going to continue to perform concerts for free,'' Muhanovic says. ``It's spiritual food for the people. It helps people get through this horrible situation.''

Approximately 400 Sarajevans filled the concert hall for the orchestra's New Year's Day concert, the first New Year's concert held in Sarajevo's National Theater since the siege began in 1992. In a hall so cold that the audience could see its breath, the crowd clapped along to the Radetsky march and lost itself in Strauss, Mozart, and Verdi. A new atmosphere inside

The ornate theater's pockmarked walls are scarred from mortar shells and machine-gun fire. But inside, the main concert hall is untouched, and red carpets, elegant chandeliers, and a sense of peace greet concertgoers.

``Just for a few seconds you can imagine that there is no war going on outside,'' said Alma, attending the concert with her boyfriend, who's on leave from the Bosnian Army. ``Everything reminds you of life before, but it's only an imitation.''

There is no running water in the bathrooms, and chandeliers have only one bulb in them to save electricity. The orchestra has no money to heat the building, which is located only 500 yards from the front line.

Wearing their Sunday best

Sitting quietly with three friends dressed in their best clothes for the New Year's concert, Lejla Mussic said she understood why the donations were slowing, but life without the concerts would be difficult.

``It helps us so much spiritually. Music is something that lifts you up,'' Ms. Mussic says. ``But the world is simply tired of us and the length of the suffering here. Now you have Grozny and other things on the world scene.''

Teodor Romanic, who has served the orchestra as a director and a conductor during the last 40 years, is fatalistic.

``There are a lot of problems in the world. We cannot be the first all the time,'' he says. ``We had concerts during the bombardment, we let people feel civilized.... But now, without regular support it is impossible to go on.''

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