Middle Eastern Music as a Challenge

In 1999, Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim founded the Arab-Israeli youth orchestra. Now, Lebanese star violinist Claude Chalhoub continues the tradition. Christina Förch reports from Beirut


photo: Universal Music
Claude Chalhoub

​​International dialogue across state borders through music – this is not a completely new concept, but one that appears to work. Already back in 1999, Daniel Barenboim, musical director of the Berlin State Opera, and the intellectual and pianist Edward Said founded an Arab-Israeli youth orchestra in Weimar. They performed classical music with a young, yet highly qualified ensemble under the direction of star conductor Barenboim.

The Lebanese violinist Claude Chalhoub, who was 20 years old at the time, also took part in the project as its concertmaster. Barenboim had immediately recognized the extraordinary talent of the young violinist, whose knees had been shaking during the audition.

Now, Chalhoub has once again involved himself in a multicultural music project bearing the title “Orient meets Occident”, which took place during the last weeks of December in Beirut. This time the audition was a breeze and the level of professionalism was not as high, he said in an interview given during rehearsals. He is regarded as one of the best musicians in the country and teaches at the Lebanese Conservatory.

He has had an excellent training in the European musical tradition, can share his experience of international concerts, and can afford not to be always present during rehearsals. He is the star here, although, this time, he has only committed himself as a simple violinist.

Dialogue financed by Europe

Nonetheless, he is fond of this new project, in which 90 young musicians from more than 10 countries took part, including Germany, Poland, Bulgaria, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine. Prizewinners from young musicians’ competitions and the best music students from Arab capitals came together for 10 days in a Maronite conference center in northern Lebanon to rehearse, get to know each other both personally and musically, and then perform concerts in Amman, Damascus, and Beirut.

In addition, they also took part in two lectures dealing with the topic of religion and violence. The project was organized by the German Podium Foundation of Young Musicians, while the German Foreign Office and the European Commission ensured that it did not fail due to lack of funding.

Oriental music presents artists with difficult challenges

One of the fundamental differences between Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the current project was that the musicians didn’t only perform Western music. “Who says that there is only European classical music?” said Chalhoub. “There is also an Oriental classical tradition.” He explained that it is no less difficult to play than Paganini.

“It is mainly a cultural issue,” believes the Lebanese violinist. “You have to get into the right frame of mind. Improvisation in Oriental classical music might not be as technically complicated, but it is still very difficult. Not everyone can play it.”

This was the aim of “Orient meets Occident” – to give young people the chance to musically communicate with each other as well as getting a sense of the other cultural tradition. Arab musicians had the opportunity to gain insight into the musicality and technique of their European colleagues, while the young Europeans had the unique experience of performing Arab classical music – and at a level demanded by a Christmas concert.

Katharina Fröhlich pointed to the score of an Oriental piece of music . “Semitones like these are used by modern European composers, so this isn’t totally new for me,” she explained. Yet, she had never played Arab classical music before. “Up until now, I had only heard such music on the radio, and even that was rare.” It took her a while to get accustomed to playing in this different genre. “But it finally came together – with the help of my Arab colleagues.”

A tradition of musical dialogue

This kind of musical dialogue was the goal of the organizors. Arab and German musicians had already met in Germany in the summer of 2002 to play together. Last year’s get-together successfully concluded with the production of a CD with tracks consisting of European and Arab music.

Artistic director Thomas Rietschel, who was already present at the first meeting, organized the concert program to once again feature a mix of Eastern and Western music. The first part of the program included pieces by Vivaldi, Bach, and Handel, as well as Oriental classical music. The second part highlighted the Lebanese soloist Fadia el Hage and the Lebanese Notre Dame Louaize Choir performing Syrian Christian songs – with orchestral accompaniment, of course.

A careful choice of tutors

The musical dialogue was not only reflected in the organization of the concert program, but also in the choice of musical tutors. The American concertmaster Geoffrey Wharton of the Gürzenich Orchestra Cologne and Georg Katsouris of the Radio Symphonic Orchestra in Frankfurt both attended from Germany. Rafea Essam and Rahhal Moslim from the Damascus Conservatory were on hand during rehearsals to offer the European musicians advice and lessons on how to play the Oriental pieces.

The chairman of the foundation, Dr. Willy Rellecke, was fully satisfied with the way the project turned out. “When they first arrived, the musicians still stuck together in their national groups,” he noticed. However, that completely changed after their first musical encounter. “After the first rehearsal, nothing could stop them from mingling together. You could hear laughter long past midnight coming from the rooms and hallways.”

Sustainable musical dialogue

Rellecke is convinced of the value of these kinds of projects. Scientists talk a lot about dialogue during conferences, but they never really get to know each other at such events,” he explained. “The idea of this project is to create a real, long-lasting dialogue.”

“We also talked a great deal about dialogue,” said Fröhlich. But all the talk proved unnecessary. “We actually practiced dialogue,” she stated plainly. The Jordanian violinist Laith Abushaar, who sat next to Fröhlich during rehearsals, agreed with the young German. “This is a unique opportunity to get to know musicians from other countries.” And perhaps even an opportunity to forge new friendships.

Sometimes, the young musicians even managed to escape the strict supervision of the tutors and organizors and got away from the rather remotely located conference center. On the third night, Chalhoub secretly arranged for a bus to pick them up.

He wanted to finally show his new friends from Europe and other Arab countries his home city of Beirut and to take them to the latest clubs. This allowed them to continue their cross-cultural dialogue over a glass of beer and to the accompaniment of techno music. Of course, the organizors did not object.

Christina Förch © Qantara.de 2003
Translation from German: John Bergeron