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The Edward Said National Conservatory’s Arabic Orchestra puts Palestine center stage

Jerusalem24 – The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah is currently hosting what is both a unique opportunity and a musical treat for musicians and lovers of Arabic music.

From 10 to 19 July, 70 musicians, students, graduates and professors of the institute will get together to form the Arab Orchestra Camp, culminating in a week of performances for eager audiences in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Bethlehem.

But what exactly sets this Arabic orchestra apart from others? What should you be excited about, should you plan to attend?

Zeina Khoury, Manager of Orchestras at the National Conservatory of Music, shares with Jerusalem24 everything you need to know about this year’s Arabic Orchestra season.


This isn’t the very first iteration of an Arabic instrument orchestra, but it does innovate in some exciting ways. Can you tell us more?

The unique thing about this orchestra is that we’ve taken the original form of an Arabic ensemble that has existed for over 100 years, which includes instruments like the oud, kanun, buzuq, and Arabic percussion, and we’ve amplified it acoustically.

The form of Arabic orchestras you see these days typically take an Arabic ensemble and add a lot of string instruments like the violin, viola and cello – but that would take over the sound of the ensemble so they’ve had to depend on amplifying the Arabic instruments electronically, which has taken away from the original sound of the Arabic music instruments.

But what we are trying to do – and we’re still experimenting with this – is basically taking that ensemble and acoustically amplifying it. For example, this year in the orchestra we have 21 oud players, 16 kanuns, 10 buzuqs, and five percussion instruments – along with the string instruments. The string instruments aren’t originally Arabic, but they’ve sort of joined the Arabic family.

What is the participants’ schedule going to look like?

We’re doing nine days of daily rehearsals, starting at 9 AM and ending at 6.30 PM – and one day of rest, which is needed, especially in this hot weather. Sometimes they’ll continue in the evening if they need individual practice.

We’re beginning with sectional rehearsals, meaning with small groups or individually, each instrument with their coach or teacher. And after a couple of days we start to put the whole orchestra together, 70 players with the conductor, Suhail Khoury. The last couple of days we only rehearse as an orchestra, so we can work on the harmonics, the balance, the dynamics, and the pieces as a whole.

So it’s a lot of hard work but it really pays off, and its shows: there’s a big difference already between yesterday and today.

How did you select the 70 participants?

We opened applications for the orchestra. Some people knew about it because we started last year, so they had heard about the orchestra and were excited to join this year.

We announced it to our students at the conservatory but also to students at other conservatories, to Al-Kamandjati, to conservatories in the north. We welcome any Palestinian musicians who play Arabic instruments or string instruments.

We then take a look at each application individually, see their level, who their teacher is… Some applicants are students. If they’re advanced enough or have played with the orchestra already, we accept them immediately. Others whom we don’t know enough about, we’ll ask to audition. They’ll record a video of them playing one or two pieces to show their skills and current level.

Let’s talk about the performances…

So we have three performances next week, starting Thursday 20 July at 8 PM at the Faisal Al-Husseini Hall in Jerusalem, at the Yabous Cultural Center. Tickets are available at the National Conservatory in Jerusalem, at the Yabous Cultural Center, or the Tazkarti website.

The second performance will be part of the International Festival in Ramallah at the Cultural Palace on Friday 21 July at 8 PM. Tickets are available at the conservatory or Markez Al-Fan Al-Shabi which are holding the international festival.

On Monday 24 July we have our third and final performance for the season at Qasr Al-Mo’tamarat, the Convention Palace in Bethlehem, at 7 PM.

What can the audience expect? Do you think they will be enthusiastic?

I mean, they can expect an amazing concert of course. And new music: we’re working on a whole new program, with music exclusively by Palestinian composers.

We put the word out and asked Palestinian composers to either compose specifically for this tour and orchestra, or to arrange pieces by Palestinian composers for this specific orchestra. So we have composers like Tamer Al-Sahouri, Wanees Za’rour, Suhail Khoury, Wassim Qassis, and Amer Nakhleh. A lot of these amazing composers maybe well-known to certain people but not as well-known to others, and we would like to expose them even more to our Palestinian community.

Usually, we hear a lot of traditional Arabic music or a lot of pop, but we don’t know our current composers. So that’s something really exciting to see.

We’ve had a lot of enthusiasm before when we performed with our ensembles and orchestras. I think that being part of the international festival this year, Mahrajan Falasteen Al-Douli, and being part of the festival in Jerusalem, Layali Al-Tarab fi Quds Al-Arab, it’s bringing in this new audience and also gaining their audience.

We are creating a new community that comes to these concerts. 30 years ago, when we started with the conservatory, we were barely able to build a small audience. Nowadays you see an audience of hundreds, excited about the concerts.

When you play classical music you target a smaller audience. But when you include Arabic instruments, our instruments – we’re Arabs at the end of the day, Palestinians – and Palestinian music and Palestinian composers, that’s something to be proud of and that will attract an audience.

It’s something different and unique.

What is the outcome you are hoping for, both for the participants and the audience?

For the participants, they work on the daily and they work really hard, so they develop their skills individually on their instruments. But playing with 70 other musicians, you really develop a sense of community, of family. You also develop your listening skills: you listen to the other instruments, you listen to your teachers. So there’s a lot of individual development, and as a group as well.

We also have players coming from everywhere in Palestine: Jerusalem, Bethlehem, Nablus, Ramallah, Jenin, Nazareth, Akka, Arrabe… It’s really amazing seeing them come together in one place: they sleep here at the camp, they play together, they experience all of that together. They create long-term friendships and relationships.

What does the future hold for the National Conservatory’s Arabic orchestra?

We’re hoping to do this annually if not more often. For this tour, we’re even hoping to have a couple of events in the fall, in places like Haifa and Nablus and hopefully in Amman. If that works out, we’ll have three more concerts with this year’s musicians.

And next year, we’re hoping to do it again. Sometimes it depends our budget, because having 70 people together is not cheap… We’re also still experimenting with the balance of the orchestra.

It’s an ongoing experiment and ongoing project, definitely for many years to come.


This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Listen to the full interview on Vibes.

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