On the face of it, symphony orchestras are a strange medium in which to conduct contemporary international cultural relations. They are outsized beasts: expensive to transport, often playing standard classical repertoire from nations unconnected with the orchestra itself; and dissociated from the life of the community in which they are appearing.

The subject came to the fore a few weeks ago when one of the most admired examples of orchestral cultural diplomacy, the European Union Youth Orchestra (EUYO) announced it was closing due to withdrawal of its EU subsidy – a poor decision, to say the least, and one which it was good to see reversed following Jean-Claude Juncker’s intervention. The EUYO’s advantage, rather like Daniel Barenboim’s West-East Divan Orchestra, is that its core membership is multi-cultural; crossing boundaries and religions in a way that more conventional bands can’t quite match – keeping bridges open to Russia, for example, and even accommodating Armenian and Azerbaijani musicians, despite the traumatic history between those two nations. Like Barenboim, Marshall Marcus, the CEO of the EUYO, would emphasise that ‘It isn’t an orchestra for peace, but an orchestra against ignorance’.

On several occasions orchestras have been used as ‘blunt instruments’ in unambiguous political gestures which are, more often than not, totally ineffective. One of the most peculiar of them was the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s much-vaunted trip to North Korea in 2008, intended to open doors and herald a new era in the DPRK’s relationship with the US. The reality of relations between North Korea and much of the rest of the world, however, challenged this premise – and the grand orchestral gesture of playing Wagner, Dvořák and Gershwin in Pyongyang now seems a somewhat misguided gesture. At least Condoleezza Rice (US Secretary of State at the time, and herself an accomplished musician) was pretty sanguine about the likely impact: ‘I don’t think we should get carried away,’ she said, ‘about what listening to the concert is going to do in North Korea’. How right she was.

Even crasser is the Maryinsky’s recent concert with Gergiev in the ruins of Palmyra – an odd event that saw the orchestra fly in, play some Russian music in the middle of the day and leave, almost immediately! Bizarre… but does this necessarily mean that orchestras don’t have a part to play in cultural relations? I would strongly argue that they do – but that we also need to look closely at the rationale, the model, the repertoire and the methodology, as well as the potential legacy of such work.

A more considered approach was adopted by the BBC, in partnership with the British Council, in 2014. As a lead up to the Glasgow Commonwealth Games the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra – under its enterprising CEO Gavin Reid – planned a three-stage tour across India; and a true cultural exchange between musicians from both traditions. Students from both the KM Music Conservatory in Chennai and Royal Conservatoire in Scotland were involved, and following the tour, the Indian musicians played again with their Scottish peers at Celtic Connections in Glasgow. It was a concerted attempt to reach as many people through the collaboration as possible; and to share traditions from east and west.

Reid sees the coupling of UK soft power objectives with culture as a great thing, reporting that both professional musicians and students found the experience a wholly positive one. There is a desire to do something similar again but, with too little investment, what was a great and successful enterprise will not turn into a world-changing one.

Still, I retain some misgivings. The way western classical music is presented to those from a different musical culture can be a very sensitive issue, particularly in this instance, where this was the music of the colonial power.

A different approach was adopted by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales in its venture to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Welsh colonisation of Patagonia. Though the word ‘colony’ remains, there are none of the stigmas of British India, nor of the dichotomy of musical languages.

Michael Garvey, the orchestra’s general manager, is pragmatic regarding the value in taking Welsh musicians elsewhere to play Brahms: musicians and audiences benefit in many ways. An added benefit in this case was the celebration of a remote outpost of Welsh culture, now fully integrated into Argentina.

The driver for Garvey in all of this was education, and there was much success in this respect: workshops, work with children with disabilities, amateur choirs, local youth orchestras. Consequently, the visit proved the catalyst for a shift in perceptions in the community about the place and purpose of music in its midst. There is also a legacy: a perfectly serviceable concert hall, and plans for musicians from the orchestra to pay biennial return visits, to maintain the connections they have made and to nurture future activity and exchange.

The Welsh are ambitious and have plans to visit China in 2018, where so many British orchestras go to earn more income as their UK subsidy falls. This might not be cultural diplomacy, but it is looking more and more like essential business.

Essential business is how Kathryn McDowell of the London Symphony Orchestra sees it: a core commercial part of the LSO’s annual budget which, these days, is increasingly hard to come by – although these commercial imperatives don’t stop the LSO from being highly entrepreneurial about its international work.

Constantly on the lookout for high-level international opportunities, it sees itself as a core part of the UK’s ‘cultural soft power armoury’ – akin to Tate or the V&A. It seeks to effect major change through these opportunities, opening doors for others and embedding in communities. The orchestra’s long-term operation in venues in Paris, Japan and the US means that it has become part of the musical fabric of the place of its residency, and demonstrates a major commitment.

The LSO’s reputation in this area led to a partnership with the Aix en Provence Festival, whose visionary director, organist Bernard Foccroulle, wanted to alter the orientation of the festival towards a Mediterranean mindset. He saw the LSO as crucial to this change and, working together, they created a Medi-youth Orchestra; with the LSO players coaching, mentoring and running education conferences with young people.

McDowell, who says, ‘You can’t do education on a hit and run basis,’ sees ‘systemic social change’ emanating from these initiatives, as well as positive changes in the mindset and well-being of her players; and Bernard Foccroulle has been emboldened to pursue other orchestras (like the Philharmonia) with other similar projects.

Speaking recently at the Transform Orchestra Leadership Conference in São Paulo led me to ask questions of Brazil’s orchestras. Why shouldn’t they be leaders in similar innovation? And how much (given its size, more than 50% of South America) cultural exchange takes place within Brazil – or with the rest of the continent? Domestic exchange also matters.

A lot of what is done in Brazil in terms of social engagement through the Arts reaches Europe, and the country is leading the way in creating cultural practice for social development. Several youth orchestras – the São Paulo State Youth Symphony, Neojiba and Heliopolis Symphony – have made huge impressions in Europe and the USA for their musical quality and artistic energy. But how far are Brazilian orchestras touring, not in terms of air miles, but to Brazilian audiences beyond their local concert halls? How deep is their engagement in their own back yard?

The EUYO regularly has 28 nationalities within it. El Sistema in Venezuela has one, but has scaled to the extent that it has become a countrywide social phenomenon, reaching almost a quarter of the population in some form; and has put down international roots, most notably in Scotland. Marshall Marcus of the EUYO is also connected to El Sistema, and is driving an expansion of the Sistema EU network to greater scale through a digital e-learning legacy.

This is akin to the digital drive of the Philharmonia, arguably the UK’s most innovative orchestra in terms of its deployment of digital, internationally and in the UK. Retiring Philharmonia chief David Whelton says that the touring scene has changed beyond recognition in the last 30 years. Since the nineties recession orchestras have rethought touring beyond the overnight parachute jump, and the early morning departure – resulting in ‘centres of gravity’ like Dortmund in Germany or the Châtelet in Paris; dipping a toe in the water of education and audience development, thus diversifying the orchestral portfolio. The Philharmonia has demonstrated to other European bands the potential to thrive on a new business model which is less reliant on public subsidy – around 20%, as opposed to German and French models at well over 70%.

Prior to the newest manifestation of the Philharmonia’s digital drive, Virtual Reality, the orchestra toured large-scale installations RE-RITE and Universe of Sound as part of iOrchestra, which includes a touring 40m marquee and musical truck. A two-year audience development strategy across the UK’s south-west reached more than 120,000, mainly young people, demonstrating the power of technology to reach new audiences through live large-scale orchestral experiences.

Virtual Reality, a ten-day ‘digital takeover’ of the Royal Festival Hall at the start of the 2016-17 season, will fundamentally build on the work to use technology to bring orchestral music to new audiences on their own terms and beyond the traditional concert hall, says the orchestra’s digital director Luke Ritchie. Undertaken over nine years, with a great deal of outside investment, this has led to invitations overseas – often initiated by the British Council – to play of course, but also to showcase innovative work.

Speaking of the British Council, the Brazil conference itself was a remarkable example of how culture in general and music in particular are valuable tools for building trust and understanding between nations – the organisation’s USP. Our teams in Brazil and London, working with the Association of British Orchestras, have realised a vision for dialogue and exchange, connecting orchestra managers, conductors, educators and musicians; and feedback from more than 30 UK organisations (including the Aurora Orchestra, the Scottish Ensemble and the Royal Northern Sinfonia, all of whom performed in South America) demonstrates that the Transform Programme has given them a deeper understanding and engagement with Brazilian music, musicians and culture, and had a significant impact in their own professional practice.

Who now wants a touring orchestra that’s just going to turn up, play, and go? Not many! So, if you are running an orchestra with shrinking public subsidy and are looking to tour, look around you, take account of the best practice from across the world including the UK, and mark your score with an accelerando. The tempo is increasing and the great conductor in the skies won’t hang around for you!

Graham Sheffield CBE is director of arts, British Council