Music

Greek island of Lesbos holds spectacular and inclusive classical concert for asylum seekers

The Greek island of Lesbos was almost overwhelmed in 2015 by the influx of asylum seekers fleeing conflict. Many still live there in camps, and they were special guests at a music festival in August

People sit watching classical musicians on an outdoor stage

Molyvos International Music Festival, Lesbos

There is nothing more terrifying than fleeing your war-torn country – except, perhaps, what is waiting for you on the other side. Having endured epic journeys – often in much-publicised ‘small boats’ (inflatable dinghies) – displaced people are increasingly exposed to further suffering.

In the UK, the controversial Bibby Stockholm barge in Dorset hit the headlines earlier this year when an outbreak of Legionella forced the evacuation of the asylum seekers who were being housed there. Since then the vessel, which is intended to house 500-odd people, has undergone a deep clean and fire safety additions.

The Home Office has not confirmed when it will be reopened, but it is expected that the government’s plan for housing asylum seekers on board will go ahead. In its regular ‘number crunching’ feature, Private Eye revealed that it would cost £18 million to house 500 refugees on the barge for a year, versus £15.25 million to send the same number on a Disney cruise for a comparable duration. It is impossible, then, not to see it as a political decision rather than a humanitarian one.

The Greek island of Lesbos has been at the centre of the migrant crisis since 2015. In September that year, huge numbers of asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iraq and beyond ended up in Lesbos on their way to destinations in Northern Europe. The island’s small population (around 85,000) and limited infrastructure struggled to cope with the enormous influx and thousands were confined to cramped camps.

In turn, this impacted on tourism, the island’s key source of revenue. It has taken years for people to find asylum and the camps remain, albeit in a different form.

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It wasn’t quite a Disney cruise, but a recent concert provided a delightful diversion for one group of displaced people.

A group of children and young people from one of the camps were guests at a special concert held by the Molyvos International Music Festival (MIMF), a prestigious-yet-welcoming annual event directed by Greek-German sisters Danae and Kiveli Dörken and their Lesbos-born mother Lito Dakou.

German violinist Antje Weithaas (who performed at London’s Wigmore Hall with harpsichordist Mahan Esfahani on 2 October) led a string sextet in an arrangement by Michael Gotthard Fischer of Beethoven’s pastoral symphony, opening up a discussion about weather and seasons.

Danae Kontora sang Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise, explaining to the audience how sopranos sing – engaging the young listeners with her panting dog impression. Best of all, after the performance, the children were all welcomed on stage to play the musicians’ own instruments – some, such as the violins, are priceless so this was an incredibly generous gesture.

There were no flashy digital displays seen in other childrens’ concerts, or the silliness of this year’s Horrible Histories – ’orrible Opera Prom (available via BBC Sounds). The stage was simple, set up on a tennis court near the beach. Earlier that day, some of the musicians had given a free performance by a neighbouring swimming pool, inviting children holidaying on Lesbos to join the concert free of charge.

These pop-up performances are part of MIMF’s ‘musical moments’ series; mini recitals that take place across the village, bringing classical music to locals and tourists. The advertising worked: multiple nationalities played and learned together on stage – a rare moment of international harmony.

I was attending the festival primarily for another article but, despite the high quality of the performances throughout, it was this concert that will stay with me.

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