Even in the grim days of the Cold War, when tensions between the USSR and the West were at their most febrile, great music still managed to speak across the ideological divide, fostering mutual respect and understanding and helping to ease international relations. From the moment they met in 1960, the special friendship between the great composers Benjamin Britten and Dmitri Shostakovich had huge symbolic significance in improving diplomatic and artistic relations. Today that unique bond is about to be celebrated with the formation of the first-ever British-Russian orchestra.

The Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra will bring together talented young musicians from Britain and Russia to tour both nations in September with programmes of British and Russian music – the first appearances by what is hoped to be a permanent orchestra.

The idea grew out of a series of concerts given at the British Embassy in Moscow by the Novaya Opera, a company whose artistic director, Jan Latham-Koenig, is the only British conductor leading a Russian cultural organisation.

He takes up the story: “Our ambassador, Sir Laurie Bristow, himself no mean viola player, reminded me that in 1971 at the height of great diplomatic tensions between the UK and Russia, Britten and Shostakovich gave a joint concert at the British Embassy. Edward Heath’s government had expelled 105 diplomats from London and tit-for-tat expulsions were taking place in Moscow, but these were the years of détente when USSR musicians and British musicians were welcomed in each others countries. Indeed, Lord Armstrong, then principal private secretary to Heath, told me he remembers hosting Britten and Shostakovich to 10 Downing Street at that time.”

Clearly, music was seen as being a great enabler in improving relations. Fast-forward to November 2017, and after one of his embassy concerts, Latham-Koenig was approached by Sir Laurie. He and Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, had jointly agreed that 2019 would be the Year of Music in Russia, and the ambassador was keen that the purpose of the year would not be forgotten once it was over. “He wanted it to have some legacy, so together we came up with this idea of a joint orchestra. It wouldn’t be an official, government-led project but it would have moral support from both sides.”

Latham-Koenig believes very strongly that Britten and Shostakovich were the two greatest composers of the 20th century in their respective countries. “Above all, they were friends, two geniuses who admired each other. They were different personalities but you can see that in subtle ways they were both influenced by each other’s music. We feel that fellowship is reflected in what we are doing.”

Charles Hendry, a former energy minister in David Cameron’s government, came on board and enlisted funding from BP and its Russian counterpart Rosneft, money which would enable the young musicians to travel, rehearse and perform free of charge. With Ian Smallbone as executive director, the organisers set about auditioning some 300 players at conservatoires across both countries. Eventually they chose a mix of current students and recent graduates – 50 women and 37 men, with a geographical split of 35 from the UK and 52 from Russia and an age range of 18 to 28. Latham-Koenig is adamant that this is not a training orchestra. “While we hope the effect of playing together will be very educative it is not an education project; these are young professionals and we are striving for artistic excellence.”

And will there be a political spin-off? “This is something the ambassadors and politicians hope for. Music is the ideal medium to achieve this, particularly playing music by two great composers who loved each other. Where possible, we will seat Russians with Brits on every desk.” The concerts in Russia and the UK will represent the first chance for most of these musicians to be part of such international musical collaboration, providing an invaluable musical and cultural experience.

Latham-Koenig expects to encounter differing musical practice when rehearsals begin in Sochi. “In my experience of working with first-class professional musicians in both countries, Russian musicians need longer to absorb a piece; they are not good sight readers, but once they have mastered a piece the result is quite magnificent. And Russian orchestral musicians are not good at taking initiative; they depend a lot on the conductor. They wait to take instructions. In the UK, musicians tend to sort out problem themselves; it’s a major difference in approach to getting a good result.” These differences, he says, can be put down to the wide disparity in time devoted to rehearsals in the UK and Russia. British musicians rarely have sufficient time to rehearse and are used to thinking on their feet, whereas generous Russian state subsidies allow musicians to enjoy expansive rehearsal time. Latham-Koenig recalls that a new production at the Novaya scheduled to open in February 2017 had its first orchestral play-through the previous July. “What will make it easier is the fact that technology today enables everyone to receive their parts well in advance, so pre-preparation will be effective, and while the UK players may be able to grasp things more easily, the Russians will probably have a much higher technical ability, such is the rigorous training in Russian conservatoires.”

After auditioning so many young people Latham-Koenig gets the impression that this generation of Britons and Russians are more alike than they would have been 50 years ago. “A 25-year-old Russian in 1970 would be extraordinarily different from a British 25-year-old, but a shared global culture is making them more alike today: they are probably the first generation where this is evident.” He says strengths in orchestral sections are interesting. “Viola and cellos are very strong in both countries but double bass playing is far superior in the UK – in fact our bass section is entirely British. The violins are heavily weighted in favour of the Russians, and those that are British almost all have had Russian teachers, such is the superiority of Russian technique. We have some wonderful Russian clarinet players and some good Brits playing bassoon and trumpet. We even have the newly-appointed harpist to the Prince of Wales.”

After an intense rehearsal period at Sirius Park, Sochi, the orchestra will open there on 9 September with a programme of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Britten’s Four Sea Interludes and Passacaglia from Peter Grimes, and Shostakovich's Suite for Variety Stage Orchestra. The following night they will play Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance no. 1, Britten’s Young Apollo, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

Similar programmes, with other works switching in and out, will be heard at the Tchaikovsky Moscow State Conservatory, (12 and 14 September), the Philharmonic Hall, St Petersburg (15 September), Symphony Hall, Birmingham (17 September), the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham (18 September), Town Hall, Leeds (19 September), Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester (21 September), Usher Hall, Edinburgh (22 September), The Anvil, Basingstoke (24 September) and Cadogan Hall, London (25 September).

Pianists Pavel Kolesnikov, Miroslav Kultyshev and Ilya Chirskov will feature as soloists, and violinist Jennifer Pike will join the orchestra for the UK leg of the tour to play Vaughan Williams’s Lark Ascending. On the Nottingham and London dates, actors Edward Fox and Freddie Fox will speak lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, accompanied by Shostakovich’s score for Gregori Kozintsev’s film of the play.

There is an ambition to broaden the repertoire in future seasons, though they will never be without British and Russian music. “Personally, I would like to include the work of composers that Britten and Shostakovich admired, so in 2021 I hope to do the second symphony of Mahler, a composer almost above all others that they most admired. They both loved Tchaikovsky, but while Britten had little time for Beethoven or Brahms he loved Verdi and Schubert and was friends with Poulenc. I would love to play Poulenc with this orchestra one day.”

Already plans are in the pipeline for 2020, which will mark the 75th anniversary of World War 2. “I think they would love us to do Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony and Britten’s War Requiem at the Philharmonic Hall in St Petersburg. Now, how special that would be, especially performing with young people born decades after that terrible conflict.”

Click here to see all future concerts of the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra.

This article was sponsored by the Britten-Shostakovich Festival Orchestra.