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United Orchestration Beautiful music for a good cause

Doctor by day, cellist by night: Christian Lienhardt

(Konstantin Kleine)

By day, he’s a globe-trotting doctor working to eliminate tuberculosis, by night he plays cello in the UN Orchestra.

When World Health Organization epidemiologist Dr. Christian Lienhardt travels from Geneva to India, Ethiopia, Vietnam, and other locales at high risk for tuberculosis, he does not take his cello.

But in his hotel room after a long day of fieldwork examining promising (or not) new treatments, he might be found sitting at his laptop, earbuds in place, listening to an orchestral piece while turning the pages of the score. It’s one way he prepares for concerts as a member of the Untied Nations Orchestra.

“My work is quite heavy, requires lots of attention,” says Lienhardt, who grew up in Laon, France, where he first studied music as a child. He loves his demanding WHO research, but playing music “acts as a free space where I leave the work”.

Lienhardt is one of some 70 volunteer musicians in the UN Orchestra, which performed its first concert in 2011. They work at the UN, CERN, and other Geneva-based NGOs. Some other musicians are Geneva-based professionals in other fields. 

Defending values

The orchestra’s mission is to “defend the values of the UN through music”, says co-founder and president Martine Coppens.

And to bring “the message of peace”, adds co-founder Antoine Marguierexternal link, who is the orchestra’s Conductor and Artistic Director. He is also Professor of Chamber Music at the Haute École de Musique in Geneva, and has been a guest conductor for numerous renowned professional orchestras.


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UN orchestra

 Who are the orchestra’s musicians who not only volunteer for the orchestra but pay a small yearly fee to be members? “Some had a decision to make in their lives”, says Coppens, “‘Should I become a musician or a doctor?’” Or a physicist, a conservationist, or humanitarian worker.

For Lienhardt, 61, this was never a question. “I wanted to be a doctor from a young age”, he says. But he also loved music. One of five children growing up in Laon, and later Colmar and Strasbourg, they all began playing instruments at an early age thanks to their mother who “was dreaming of having a little orchestra”, he says. Mother ‘assigned’ 10-year-old Christian the cello. The others: piano, violin, trumpet and flute.

As a teenager, Lienhardt studied at the Conservatoire de Colmar. Serious commitment to his musical studies was natural, he says, because his father was a Protestant preacher, and “rigor is one of the principles in a family like that”.

Medicine and music

He also taught himself guitar, learning songs by Simon and Garfunkel, and his favorite, Leonard Cohen. As a young doctor in Alsace, he formed a band that played tango music, replacing the traditional violin with the cello’s lower voice.

Lienhardt loves the cello for its “timbre”, its tone, able to plumb the depths but also rise into higher registers. He also likes that, physically, “you embrace the instrument”.

But like all instruments, it takes huge commitment to play professionally. Just like medicine.

As a young doctor specializing in infectious diseases, and traveling widely in Africa and beyond, Lienhardt put his music aside for 20 years. Then, in 2005, when settling with his wife and two children in Paris, he found a private teacher and began playing again.

In 2009 they moved to Geneva after he accepted the post at the WHO as team leader of a global tuberculosis research programme. One day a couple of years later, walking through the WHO campus he saw people carrying instruments, and asked where they were going. He hadn’t heard of the UN Orchestra, but soon auditioned and joined the other “amateur” musicians.

Antoine Marguier conducting the orchestra

(Martin Good)


Marguier doesn’t like the word ‘amateurs’ used to describe members of his orchestra. He says they are all “passionate” and very committed. “We feel that passion with every candidate who comes to play with us,” he says. “They give 200 per cent.” He expects a lot from them, including weekly three-hour rehearsals, conducted in French and English, as need arises. A musician who misses more than two rehearsals for the next concert may not be permitted to perform at that concert. And yet, “I’ve never conducted such a happy orchestra,” he says.

For musicians like Lienhardt whose work for international organisations often takes them to foreign lands, making it to rehearsals is not always easy – not to mention practicing privately a few times a week and perhaps taking private lessons, as Lienhardt does. But he says that the orchestra is always a priority when work permits. If he can schedule his next meeting in Swaziland on a Wednesday so he can make the Monday night rehearsal in Switzerland, he does.

The orchestra was “exactly the sort of thing I was missing”, he says. “It’s both a pleasure and a discipline.” And he can hardly believe that he gets to play with top guest soloists from around the world who join the orchestra for particular concerts. “I could never have dreamt of such a thing.”

Humanitarian mission

Lienhardt is also proud of the orchestra’s humanitarian mission. In the spirit of the United Nations, all profits from concert admissions (though some concerts are free), are contributed to humanitarian causes such as UNICEF, a UNHCR fund for Syrian refugees, Bilifou (community aid to a region in Burkina Faso), Japan’s tsunami victims, education in Sierra Leone, Grains of Peace (a Swiss NGO), and others. Some CHF170,000 ($171,000) have been donated by the orchestra since 2011, says Coppens, who, as president, is also a volunteer.

 Musicians in Geneva interested in becoming a member or who would like to volunteer to help with administration can contact Antoine Maguier. [www.unorchestra.chexternal link]

To see Christian Lienhardt embracing his cello in concert with his fellow passionate musicians, check out the UN Orchestra’s event calendarexternal link

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