When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo

by Ira Lieberman, violinist

This article originally appeared in Allegro, the magazine of Local 802, in December, 2008.

In 2002, the British violinist Ruth Waterman was invited to coach a chamber ensemble in war-torn Mostar, Bosnia. She performed with and conducted a group of musicians holding their world together amid the chaos of the former Yugoslavia. Waterman was an established artist who had performed in New York City with Orpheus and St. Luke’s, among other groups. But this did not prepare her for the conditions she encountered in Bosnia, which she writes about in her new book “When Swan Lake Comes to Sarajevo: A musician journeys into the aftermath of war.”

Waterman relates the stories of the musicians’ reactions to the war and their day-to-day attempts to hang on to sanity as their world imploded around them.

One musician tells Waterman that despite all of the bad conditions, “…I do this because of music! …the Mozart pushed me, helped me to forget every bad moment… So that is the thing, that I really enjoy playing.”

What kept Waterman returning to work with the musicians of Mostar?

Ruth Waterman

Ruth Waterman

“The music is like a magnet, drawing to itself the wish to be alive, fully awake, engaged and alert,” she writes. “It pulls me into it — how can I not respond to its beauty and liveliness and changeability? To the life in every note? The flow of every phrase? The intensity and unpredictability of the musical journey?”

Just days after 9/11, Waterman returned to New York City because, as she told me at the time, “I had to show solidarity with America, to be with my friends in their time of need.” In Bosnia she found a way to show that solidarity with fellow human beings through music. It makes for compelling reading.