Q+A: Joy Bryer, Founder of the European Union Youth Orchestra

Cultural leader Joy Bryer, founder of the European Union Youth Orchestra, returns to Boston as the EUYO plays at Symphony Hall on April 20 8 p.m. with conductor Vladimir Ashkenazy and pianist Yefim Bronfman. Here, she takes the time to answer a few questions ahead of the performance.

Renata Brito: How excited are you to come to Boston after so long?
Joy Bryer: I’m more than excited. Although I’ve taken my orchestra well to China, Japan, Korea, South America, Paraguay, Mexico, Russia, all over the world, literally. The thrill of them seeing Boston and my being able to tell them what to see and how I feel about it is very different than talking to them when we are in Beijing.

I think if you are a Bostonian, the values and the life that you’ve led as a young child growing up don’t leave you. I think it gives you — in fact I know it does — and I feel that what I have been brought up to believe in we are very liberal, we are very multi-cultural. I remember the North End, Chinatown, I worked very hard for the Kennedy campaign, I know all the cabots and stalls, and our history of helping people, the slaves. I remember in one of the first homes we lived in Boston, there was an underground passage where the slaves from the South could come from underground. And you pushed a bookcase and it opened, it went down into some steps, and that’s where they could come from the Charles River.

These are things that you don’t forget. I think working with 27 governments, we’re all together, we are very diverse, we have a very strong purpose in what we’re doing. But that Boston background makes you so democratic, so understanding, you know now that we have in the orchestra the 10 new countries, which were under the regimes of the Russians. Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, Poland, and Hungary. To have them in the orchestra and to know that they could never speak their own language and that their culture was, you know, stopped and they had to speak Russian and their grandparents had been to gulags or camps. It’s just you know for what the European Union has done to bring in these new countries. I applaud them. I applaud them.

How do you all communicate because you are from all different backgrounds, your students of course?
You will find that your young people from the new countries are very very keen to learn English, so a lot of them speak English, a lot don’t, but I think that when you are working with a group, not I think, I know, because I’m the mother now of about 4,000 of them. They communicate. And if we have a conductor that speaks three or four languages, he will use certain languages, but basically we’re trying to speak in English. You will find young people from say, Hungary and Poland, they want to learn English because they want to get up in the world. And of course, well, the French really don’t want to learn English, you know.

How did you end up being the mother of all these musicians?
I really didn’t want to go to university in the U.S. I can’t say why, but there was always something in me. I felt I wanted to travel. I wanted to see the world. So I first went to the University in Mexico then I went home and then I wanted to go to the Sorbonne. And in those days, young ladies from Boston did not go to the Sorbonne. But I did, and I loved it. I saw Europe, I saw Rotterdam, which had been bombed so completely. I saw everything that the war had done and it made a tremendous pressure on me, and I think that was the first feeling for me that we must, must make sure that this never happens again. Because I saw dreadful things, dreadful things.

So through music you wanted to make sure that …
That was the beginning of my feeling.

The feeling that this must not happen again.
EVER happen again.

If you could have seen the bombed scenes at Rotterdam, if you could have seen the concentration camps, every city in Europe, Greece to Berlin. I can’t even repeat to you how many millions of lives were lost. So that when the European Union came into being with only nine countries, and their great, great belief for it never to happen again. And so when we started our orchestra, all those things came back to me, and I thought ‘joy that’s what I always, always wanted to do,’ and I think we’ve accomplished so much for those countries of ours. Twenty-seven countries working together is not easy.

Your orchestra has had so many awards, and it’s been such a successful organization, but what is your definition of real success in terms of your orchestra?
First, that 90 percent have jobs.

And I would say, secondly, that we have been extraordinary ambassadors of goodwill for the EU.

And thirdly, that I have made governments aware they have to help young people. They cannot ignore culture, and since I have helped started the first National Youth Orchestra of Italy, Portugal, Spain and groups have come from my orchestra, the chamber orchestra of Europe. There are groups all over Europe playing today as professionals quartets traveling that I think is fantastically, fantastically important. I would put that ahead of the ambassadors for the Union.

Well that is already a lot.
I know! If you could make 27 governments give a bit of money to a cultural project, then you know you’re there.

Now we’re very lucky, these days of economic problems are enormous and of course we’ve had a grant from the European Commission and parliament, but we could not have come to the United States without our Airline Partnership: KLM, Alitalia, Air France and Delta in the United States.

Boston Symphony Hall, 301 Massachusetts Ave., 888-266-1200 or bso.org. EUYO showing April 20, 8 p.m.