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RAMALLAH - The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music chose to open its youth concert at the Ramallah Cultural Palace on Sunday with the "Ode to Joy" from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony - a call for brotherhood between nations, humaneness, joy and peace. Anyone who has followed the Palestine Youth Orchestra in recent years must surely be amazed by the pace of its progress. Now touting 60 young musicians, the orchestra is wholly self-reliant, no longer dependent on international support or guidance from abroad. The children play all the instruments, including the more rarely heard tuba, French horn, oboe, timpani and contrabass. The orchestra is composed of youngsters all under the age of 18, who represent the best of the conservatory's 600 students at its Ramallah, Bethlehem and East Jerusalem branches.

After the nod to Beethoven, conductor Eiad Awadi bowed to the audience and the program continued with a classical repertoire: Handel's "Chaconne" with variations, an overture by Carl Maria von Weber, Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition" and a festive piece by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. Some of the players had traveled wide and far to reach the concert: There were string players from Jericho and a trombonist, clarinetist and cellist from Nablus. How did the Nablus youngsters, none of whom enjoyed regular training, manage to raise the level of their playing to that required of an orchestra?

"They in any case have nothing else to do with their time," explains the director of the music center, Nablus The Culture, a center which is inactive at the moment because Israel Defense Forces road blocks have made it almost impossible to enter or leave the city. "So they practice all day long."

The auditorium in Ramallah is usually filled with a festive atmosphere when concerts are in full swing. The lobby and the auditorium of the elegant building, which was completed in 2004 and stands atop a hill overlooking the outskirts of Ramallah, are usually flooded with light and echo with the noise of a large and lively audience. But this time, few smiles could be seen and it seemed as if even the lights had been dimmed. The news about the disaster that had befallen the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip had turned the atmosphere gloomy, and there was a certain incident that made the sadness even more acute - the fate of the new music school in Gaza that had been hit during Israel Air Force strikes on the Strip.

The news was announced before the concert by the conservatory's director, Suhail Khoury, who added that a fund-raising campaign was being conducted to rebuild the Gazan institution. Thirty-one girls and boys had studied at the school, which was set up six months ago; most of the girls studied guitar or piano while most of the boys studied the oud, he said. They were taught by European teachers, who were married to Palestinians, and despite the fact that strict religious Islamic observance opposed musical education, Hamas authorities did not block the establishment of the school or interfere with its activities.

But the school, and all its musical instruments, were destroyed in the first waves of the IAF bombings. Fortunately there were no pupils in the building at the time.

"If every family of the students at the conservatory donates just 10 dollars, we will already have $6,000," Khoury told the audience. "And if you also add something, we will be able to reach $10,000." Three young girls, violinists in the orchestra, then started wending their way between the seats with their instruments to collect donations. Hands swiftly went into pockets to retrieve shekels for the donation boxes.

Following this unusual interval, the concert continued with one of Mozart's piano sonatas for four hands, the aria from Bach's Third Suite for the Orchestra, an original composition for a flute solo by a gifted young 12-year-old musician, and finally, a surprise - two songs in Arabic by Rima Tarazi, a pianist and composer, president of the conservatory and a childhood friend of Edward Said, sung by Tania Nasir. The finale, a movement from Tchaikovsky's Second Symphony, left the audience with mixed feelings, as they retreated into the cold and damp night in Ramallah.