On the evening of 14th May, Dr Ahmad Sarmast, founder and Principal of the Afghan National Institute of Music in Kabul, was awarded one of Classical Music's most coveted awards - Honorary Membership of London's Royal Philharmonic Society. He received his award at the culmination of the Society's annual awards ceremony alongside four fellow musicians from around the world. Following the presentations from British Council Chair Sir Vernon Ellis, all the distinguished guests who had gathered that evening in the large ballroom of London's Dorchester Hotel jumped to their feet, and it seemed as if the warm applause would never end. No-one who was present will ever forget that heart-warming and moving moment.
So what were the event s leading up to that evening, and what brought those five extraordinary people to London that day? The Royal Philharmonic Society (RPS) was founded in London in 1813, and this year celebrates its bicentenary. It is very difficult to believe when one considers the strength and richness of the classical music sector currently in the UK, that in 1813 there was no permanent orchestral society in London open to the public, nor even an organisation for the performance of Chamber Music. It was in this context that the Royal Philharmonic Society was founded by a group of professional musicians, and since that time until the present day it has worked to ensure a vibrant future for classical music by actively supporting talented performers and composers.
An important part of its work is to recognise and celebrate excellence throughout the music profession, which it does at its annual Awards Ceremony. And one of the greatest accolades afforded by the RPS is Honorary Membership, awarded in recognition of services to music. Until that Tuesday evening in May, it had been bestowed fewer than 130 times since 1826 when the first recipient was Carl Maria von Weber. The list of other recipients make for a roll-call of some of the most distinguished composers and musicians in the history of classical music, including Berlioz, Wagner, Brahms and Stravinsky.
For its bicentenary, the RPS wanted to offer Honorary Membership to five musicians who are making outstanding contributions to the development of classical music in parts of the world - and in circumstances - where this would be most unexpected. The five musicians who were chosen are putting music at the heart of some of the most challenged communities in the world, supporting young musicians and making a profound difference to the diversity of people making music.
Ricardo Castro is helping young people in Bahia, Brazil, reach their full potential no matter how disadvantaged. In America Aaron P Dworkin is supporting and encouraging young Black and Latino musicians so that the classical music world should reflect the cultural diversity of US society. Rosemary Nalden has helped hundreds of young people to realise their musical talent in Soweto, South Africa, where their everyday existence is threatened by poverty, violence and exposure to drugs. Armand Diangienda Wabasolele has created an orchestra from nothing in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country full of poverty and war. And Dr Ahmad Sarmast has brought back music to his country, silenced by the Taliban, by founding the first national music school in Afghanistan.
His story - a potent one which I experienced first-hand on a trip to Kabul two years ago - represents the first steps of a nation reclaiming its musical heritage and developing its musical future through investing in the talent of young children. The Afghan National Institute of Music was founded by Dr Sarmast and opened in 2010 with the assistance of Afghanistan's Ministry of Education. It is housed in the old School of Fine Arts, and the number of students currently stands at 150, though the ambition is to take in 300 between 10 and 20 years of age, half of whom will be girls.
Dr Sarmast received his education at the Moscow conservatoire, continuing his studies in Australia where he was exiled for many years and where he has a Phd in Afghan music from the University of Monash. He returned to Afghanistan in 2006 to see the impact of the years of war and discrimination against music, and to see how he could start to repair the damage done during a period when music was banned. With his formidable vision and energy he is building a future based on music as a healing power - half of ANIM's students are war orphans from the streets of Afghanistan - and its ability to provide revenue for both the country and for musicians. The school, which teaches Afghan and Western Classical Music, is shortly to be replicated in other Afghan cities. It is for his extraordinary service to music and the young people of his country that he has been awarded Honorary Membership of the Royal Philharmonic Society.
It was enormously rewarding to be able to bring the British Council to work in partnership with the Society to bring the honoured Awardees to London to share their experiences with the UK and receive their awards. The British Council's mission is to build trust and understanding between the UK and the rest of the world through the sharing of knowledge, creativity and art. So the opportunity to introduce our new Honorary Members to key figures in the UK music sector, the press and the public was a tremendous opportunity. The British Council has been supporting and continues to support Dr Sarmast to develop his teaching capacity and curriculum at the Afghan National Institute of Music, and is also helping to find partners to enable his students to both study and perform in the UK. Seeds of ideas have been sown too with the other Honorary Members which I know will flower in the future.