In Israel, Palestinian Orchestra Produces Sounds of Independence

Playing their Haifa debut, Palestine National Orchestra sends music through checkpoints and the walls as though they never existed.

At 7 P.M. last Sunday, while the Palestine National Orchestra was completing its final rehearsal for the concert that began shortly thereafter, a reporter for Army Radio, a soldier in uniform, arrived to cover the historic event at Haifa’s Krieger Center for the Performing Arts.

The hosts of the event looked at him in horrified disbelief, immediately blocking his path: You’ve got to understand, one of them said to him, if the members of the orchestra see you in the auditorium they will get up and leave en masse. Give us your equipment. We’ll record for you whatever you like, but please do not go in.

The soldier was utterly taken aback: What, don’t they know that Army Radio isn’t the army at all?

The Costa Rican army or the Guatemalan army, it makes no difference − the organizers tried another tack − we are talking about a cultural event, and there is no place here for a uniformed soldier. Show up in civilian clothes and you can go in and record to your heart’s delight.

Palestine National Orchestra - Hagai Fried
Hagai Fried

The reporter’s surprise did not diminish. After all, everyone knows that at Army Radio the uniform is merely a work outfit. He withdrew to a corner and began making some calls.

Such insensitivity, to show up dressed in the uniform of the occupation army at a concert by Palestinians, most of them from the occupied territories, one of the organizers said later in a private conversation. He was being too polite.

Musical rivals

The Palestine National Orchestra, which impressed with its high level of professionalism, did not land out of the blue. For the past seven years, it has been led by musician and educator Suhail Khoury, director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, which was founded in the mid-1990s and operates in East Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem.
Its members include young residents of the territories, who were 10 to 12 years old back then, and older professional musicians from the Palestinian diaspora. The conservatory established the orchestra, held rehearsals and music camps in Arab countries, and nurtured musicians through intensive, uncompromising teaching, in difficult circumstances under occupation. All of this eventually yielded this high-level performance.

Its rival, the Barenboim-Said Foundation, also provides music education in the territories. Daniel Barenboim was the first in the modern Palestinian era to hold an international piano recital in Ramallah and later conducted the youth orchestra in a concert deemed historic in its own right. But when he entered the picture, at the beginning of the last decade, a rivalry developed between his institution and Khoury’s conservatory − a rivalry that has only grown over the years. In the race to the professional summit, the conservatory beat the foundation, and Khoury bested Barenboim: The orchestra, which will doubtless become better and more polished, can perform in the real world without any sense of inferiority, not just in pioneering showcase concerts.

A political declaration

The first notes played by a Palestinian orchestra were those of a modern piece from 1952: “Concert Romanesc” by the avant-garde Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti. The work, which includes virtuoso parts that were played well, is based on Romanian folk music. Ligeti composed it under the influence of his great compatriot, Bela Bartok, whose life’s work was researching the folk music of Hungary and its environs − a preoccupation that instilled deep principles of folk music in his unique language of composition.

Playing this concerto was akin to a political declaration by the orchestra. As if it were saying, in the spirit of the European musical nationalism Bartok championed: We, too, hereby define ourselves through music. The motto of the concert, “Today an orchestra − tomorrow a state,” took on still greater force through the sounds of the piece, without any words.

The orchestra’s musical directors were surely aware of the composer’s biography: Ligeti ‏(1923-2006‏) was born into a Jewish family with an artistic and musical heritage. Leopold Auer, the greatest violin teacher of the 20th century, was his father’s uncle ‏(“Auer” in German is “Ligeti” in Hungarian, meaning “meadow”‏). During the Holocaust, the family was sent to the camps: Ligeti to a labor camp, from which he managed to return; his parents and siblings to death camps, which only his mother survived. First a refugee from the Nazis, and later from Stalin and his henchmen, Ligeti became a symbol of post-World War II revival, both physically and musically, through his universal, avant-garde work.

The choice of sounds to go down in Palestinian cultural history as the first ever played by the orchestra attests to the polyphony expressed in this concert: the immediate, clear voice, which calls for revival, independence and freedom; and the hidden, interior one, which sends a message of brotherhood to the society from which liberation is needed, Israeli society, in the form of conceding the tragic refugee history of that society. We are refugees without a country; you were such just half a century ago − we are brothers, the piece seems to say.

Solution to the riddle

It was very strange − and yet not so strange at all − to chat with a musician friend, a Palestinian from Ramallah, in the courtyard of the Krieger Center. After all, what are Palestinians doing visiting Israel? Moreover, the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, and Birzeit University, under whose auspices it was founded, are known for their uncompromising stance when it comes to boycotting Israel and not collaborating with Israeli institutions. Nevertheless, here they were lending a hand to a concert in Haifa’s municipal center, flesh of the establishment’s flesh, where an Israeli maintenance man looks after the production in practice, an Israeli security guard stands at the entrance, and Israeli ushers direct concertgoers to their seats.

Indeed, the solution to this riddle lies in the audience. The ushers and the manager may have been speaking Hebrew, but they were the minority: The 600 or so people who came to hear the orchestra play its debut concert spoke Arabic, and that was also the language onstage. The anthem was “My Homeland,” the Palestinian anthem. The orchestra did not, then, come to “Israel,” but rather to “Haifa.” In this city and its environs − all the way to Shfaram (known in Arabic as Shefa-Amr), which was a partner to the event through its municipal conservatory − reside Palestinian citizens of Israel, whose affinity with their brethren in the orchestra is clear, and also historical.

“This is my first time in Haifa,” my friend said with excitement, adding: “The mother of one of the musicians asked him to travel to Acre and bring her a stone from there.” The bus carrying the musicians filled up immediately after the concert and took off, directly for Ramallah and not via Acre, leaving behind a trail of optimism: See, it is possible. The music managed to get through the checkpoints and the walls as though they never existed.