Today an Orchestra, Tomorrow a Palestinian State

By appearing in Israel, the Palestine National Orchestra declared that boundaries had been erased.

On the night of May 7, 2004, silence reigned in the small, old auditorium of the Friends School in El Bireh. Daniel Barenboim, one of the greatest conductors of his generation, was about to raise his baton before the newly minted Palestine Youth Orchestra. Before the first chord was struck there was a sense of historic import - and the memory of a similar defining moment came to mind.

Seven decades earlier, in 1936, people in Tel Aviv - another remote town in the midst of national self-identification, and aspiring to independence - fixed their gaze on the greatest conductor of the day, Arturo Toscanini, as he raised his baton over an orchestra on its maiden performance: the Palestine Orchestra, now called the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Than, as now, in Tel Aviv and El Bireh, there was a significance beyond the musical: Both concerts were a declaration of musical-artistic-cultural independence. A pre-independence independence.

Under the slogan "Today an orchestra, tomorrow a state," to emphasize the link between a people's music and independence, the adult orchestra is now giving a concert. Last weekend, six years after the youth orchestra struck its pioneering chord, the Palestine National Orchestra gave its debut concert, showing excellent skills at the Ramallah Cultural Palace's new, well-appointed concert hall.

From the long way that Palestinian music has come in the past six years (with the establishment of conservatories, ensembles, festivals and more ), and from the meteoric musical development both in the occupied territories and within Israel, one can infer the presence of deep political and social processes, reflected by the music.

It was the same in 19th-century Europe, when there was a strong link between the music and the swirling currents of nationalism. Nations fighting to cast off the yoke of imperialism fought equally hard to define their music so as not to conform with the German Romantic-Classical mainstream conventions. In a piece on the PNO's program by contemporary Palestinian composer Salvador Arnita, once the organist of Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one finds echoes of the works of the Czech composer Dvorak, the Finnish Sibelius, the Spanish composer Albeniz - and even pre-state Israel's Alexander Uriah Boscovich and Eden Partosh.

In the sounds it created the orchestra embodied the motto "Today an orchestra, tomorrow a state," as did its soloists and 40-plus members, some of whose names appeared in the program: First chair violin Nabih Boulos and second chair Jenna Barghouti; Nasseem Al Atrash on cello and Mohammmed Nijem playing first clarinet; Iyad Hafez, Khissab Khaled and Samir Qassis on bassoon, French horn and trumpet, respectively; and the soloist Mariam Tamari, who sang Mozart with virtuosity and lucid musicality.

And as if to emphasize the longing for nationhood, the Palestine National Orchestra performed in Haifa, too. The managers and ushers of the Krieger center cannot recall an event like the one that took place there on Sunday, with a real, mature symphony orchestra of Palestinian musicians who came from the territories and from the diaspora, even Syria. By appearing in Israel, they declared that boundaries had been erased. Now, as in the past, music is ahead of its time. All you need to do to hear its prophecy is to listen.