An orchestra that lives up to the ideals of the United Nations

The United Nations Orchestra

Ever since the United Nations was founded nearly 80 years ago, it has stood for nothing less than “peace, justice, and better living for all humankind.”

When it comes to living up to those ideals, nowhere does that happen more than every Wednesday night in a nondescript office across from UN headquarters.

That’s where the musicians of the United Nations Symphony Orchestra gather to rehearse, playing everything from Brahms to Prokofiev to world premieres of unknown composers. The musicians are a diverse group that gathers from around the world, united in their love of music.

The orchestra was the brainchild of Predrag Vasic, a conservatory-trained musician who grew up in the former Yugoslavia, now Serbia.

Just how he came to work at the United Nations and found an orchestra is a story about as unlikely as his group’s diverse membership.

In the summer of 1991, Vasic was living in Belgrade—part of Yugoslavia at the time—and working as a conductor in the city’s only musical theater when he visited New York as a tourist. But during his trip, war broke out back home.

“I’m hearing from my mother that they’re coming for me,” he said, referring to military recruiters. He quickly realized he needed a new plan. At the urging of a friend, he knocked on the door of the United Nations.

“I told them I was a conductor,” he recalled, only to be told there was no need for his skills. They did need typists, however, and Vasic was good at that.

“I got hired eight weeks after I landed in New York,” he said. Now, more than 30 years later, he still works at the United Nations, as a public affairs officer, and has since married his high school classmate, Jasmine, who is a piano teacher. They have two daughters, one of whom is the orchestra’s principal second violin. The other is in high school and is also a musician.

The idea for the orchestra came in 2011, when he saw that UN staff members in Geneva, Switzerland, had started an orchestra. “It all looked so cool,” he remembered.

By June, he and a core group of about a dozen musicians formed what would become the United Nations Symphony Orchestra.

“By September, we had 50 people,” he said.

There was no money available, but the UN offered rehearsal space at 2 United Nations Plaza on East 44th Street—no small issue in Manhattan’s costly real estate market.

The first rehearsal took place that October. They played Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony.

Filling out the orchestra took time. They needed basses and oboes, for example, but he knew the interests was there.

“These are people who really, really wanted to play in a symphony orchestra,” he said.

And they came from around the world. At any time, 27 to 33 countries are represented in the UN Orchestra, Vasic said.

No section embodies the diversity of the orchestra more than the second violins. Its eight members come from three continents—North America, Europe and Asia—and six countries—Germany, Russia, Mexico, Switzerland, Timor Leste and the United States.

Ambrosio Vega, a violinist from Mexico City, is among them. During the day, he works as a telecom specialist with the United Nations, but come Wednesday nights, he brings his violin to East 44th Street for the two-hour rehearsal.

“I heard about the orchestra in an announcement,” he said, “so I asked if I could play.” That was in 2019, and he has been playing ever since.

Nearby sits Christina Dumetz (du-MAY), who is from Germany and whose husband works for the Permanent Mission of France to the United Nations. The violin, she said, has helped her get to know people in new communities. So when Christina, who is pursuing a doctorate, and her husband moved to New York in 2020, she learned of the orchestra from other UN families.

“I wrote to Predrag and everything went from there,” she said.

Then there is David Netter, a native of Switzerland who now works in New York as a project manager for American Express. He knew about the UN orchestra in Geneva—his grandfather had worked for the UN, so he had ties to the community. When he moved to the United States, he reached out to Vasic about joining.

“I love playing in an orchestra,” said Netter, who is a project manager for American Express.

The members bring a range of backgrounds and professional experiences to the orchestra, whether it’s IT, or academia, or the business world. Randy Rydell, the principal trumpet, worked as a speechwriter for the UN’s Department of Disarmament Affairs until he retired 10 years ago. He continues to play in the orchestra, traveling once a week from his home in Washington.

“He’s our most enthusiastic member,” Vasic said.

About 60 percent of the orchestra works for the United Nations or its affiliated organizations. The rest of the members come from word of mouth. The roster of nations can read like the World Almanac: Togo, Egypt, Cambodia, China, South Korea, Japan, India, Iran, Armenia, Turkmenistan, Timor Leste and others.

Concerts take place four times a year. Vasic sends an email to about 8,000 recipients and publicizes the concerts through social media. He sells about 300 to 400 tickets for each concert. Ticket revenues entirely support the orchestra’s operations like renting the concert hall and buying equipment like music stands or tympani.

The orchestra has proven to have enduring appeal among ticket buyers, as well as musicians. One reason is Vasic’s open approach to membership and rehearsals. He is well aware that people work full-time, so unlike other community orchestras in New York, he does not impose strict requirements.

“We all have demanding work,” he said. “My goal is to make it enjoyable and to make the best music we can.” The recent turmoil in the Middle East, for example, kept one of the flutists from part of a rehearsal. She is from Egypt and works as an interpreter for the UN.

In the end, the result is a global community of people who speak the common language of music. For two hours every week, the 11th floor rehearsal space is transformed into a sanctuary of sorts in a turbulent world.

“The membership exemplifies the unity and diversity of the United Nations,” Vasic said. “It’s gratifying when it all comes together.”

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