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Strains of Vivaldi’s Summer concerto escape through the stained-glass windows of a graceful mansion near Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate. Members of the Palestine Strings are rehearsing for their debut at the BBC Proms in London. They are to perform The Four Seasons with Britain’s maverick violinist Nigel Kennedy, whom Ezzat Qupty, 14, a violin student since he was four, admires as “crazy – in a good way”. Qupty’s teenage cool barely masks his awe that tickets to the Albert Hall sold out in a day.
Kennedy, who first performed with this string orchestra at a festival in East Jerusalem last summer after being struck by their “fantastic talent” on YouTube, will direct 17 string players, aged 12 to 22. This time he plans “interludes of Arabic music”, drawing on the dual musical heritage the ensemble displayed on a US tour in 2011, when the violinists played with a Palestinian dubka troupe – the stamping line dancers seen at weddings. The young musicians’ artistry flows from a disciplined system of music education, seeded 20 years ago in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, that is now bearing fruit.
The Palestine Strings, formed in 2009, is an orchestra of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, the first and largest of the institutions driving a Palestinian musical renaissance. Founded by five musicians in 1993 and linked to Birzeit University near Ramallah, the conservatory has grown from 40 students to 1,150 (with 700 more in children’s choirs), and from three teachers to 64. Despite checkpoints obstructing the movement of students and tutors, what began humbly in Ramallah now has four other branches across Palestine – Bethlehem, Nablus, Gaza and Jerusalem – as well as outreach programmes in poorer, more conservative communities from Jericho to Hebron.
As Rima Nasir Tarazi, 80, a co-founder, classical pianist and composer of Lieder-like national songs, reflects in her Ramallah garden: “Music has become part of the landscape. Playing in an orchestra teaches people to listen and harmonise. This is just as important as bread.”
The Palestine Youth Orchestra, created in 2004, has performed under guest conductor Sian Edwards in Italy and Greece, with music ranging from Beethoven and Dvorak to the Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife. The Palestine National Orchestra, a flagship symphony orchestra started in 2010 to embrace professional musicians from the diaspora, performed in Ramallah and Amman last year, interspersing Beethoven and Mozart with a composition by Syrian virtuoso clarinettist Kinan Azmeh. Such concerts are helping to build the local audience for classical music. A concert in April featuring Bizet’s Carmen filled a 1,300-seat hall in Bethlehem.
According to Suhail Khoury, the conservatory’s general director, all repertoires affirm Palestinian culture. “Even when we play Mozart or Beethoven, it shows what we can achieve. It doesn’t come easily under occupation. I want people to feel proud and make changes in their lives through music.”
Khoury, a clarinettist and ney (Arab flute) player, says the idea took hold during the first intifada, the uprising of 1987, when “people felt powerful and creative”. Taking charge in 1995, he insisted that the Arab classical tradition have an equal place alongside western music, and his Oriental Music Ensemble specialises in instruments such as the fretless oud and the zither-like qanun. The aim is to compensate for the attrition of talent in Palestine which began at the foundation of Israel in 1948, when many musicians fled abroad. Ibrahim Atari, director of the conservatory’s Ramallah branch, says that, after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war, “everything closed. There was just folk music and intifada protest songs. In the beginning of the occupation, it was very hard to make music. Anyone making a song for Palestine they put in prison.”
Thanks to international donors (the Palestinian Authority gives next to nothing), students in Gaza and the outreach programmes pay no fees. Scholarships abroad are conditional on students’ returning for a spell as teachers. Ramadan Khattab, a car mechanic with a gift for the double bass, returned from accolades in France to start a kindergarten string orchestra. “It’s not the contract that takes me back to Palestine,” he says, “but the children who have nothing.”
Students from various branches unite at summer camp in sleepy Birzeit, in a former women’s dormitory where the air of neglect is offset by colourful murals and the sound of scales. This is only the second year that Gaza students have been granted permits to come. In spite of a pin-up of Hugo Chávez, it is worlds away from Venezuela’s Sistema – which Francis Biggi, a lutenist visiting from Geneva’s Haute Ecole de Musique, describes as bigger, richer and publicly funded. “Here, you don’t know if the teachers will be there tomorrow,” he says.
Although the conservatory has its difficulties, there is progress. After years in shoddy rented premises, the Bethlehem branch has moved into a radiant glass building by local architect Elias Anastas, entirely donor-funded. A $2m, four-storey home for the Ramallah branch is being built, with its own recording studio.
The conservatory was renamed in 2004 after the late scholar and pianist Edward Said. Yet early co-operation with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, formed by Said and Daniel Barenboim, was curtailed by a divergent ethos. Rather than placing Israeli and Arab musicians side by side as Wedo does – which some spurn as a pretence of harmony that cloaks inequality – the focus is on vaulting the Israeli obstacles faced by Palestinian musicians.
These include the elusive permits without which West Bankers may not enter Jerusalem, and air travel that first requires an arduous journey to Jordan. Many expatriate Palestinians require Israeli permission to enter the West Bank, while hardly anyone can get in or out of Gaza. The conservatory often resorts to video links, as it did for the biennial Palestine National Music Competition, which won audiences long before Gaza’s Mohammed Assaf won the TV show Arab Idol in June. The 23 Sununu (swallow) children’s folk song choirs in refugee camps, run jointly with Elena Rostropovich, daughter of the cellist, have joint concerts streamed by satellite.
Although musicians cherish the purity and freedom of their art, overcoming barriers makes their coming together a potent political statement too. For Khoury, the formula is simple: “Today an orchestra, tomorrow a state.” Mohamed Najem, a solo clarinettist and composer in the Naqsh fusion ensemble, says music offers a path out of isolation: “You close your eyes – and you travel.”
Royal Albert Hall, London, August 8. www.bbc.co.uk/proms