Friday, June 27, 2008

Classical Palestinian

On Friday evening, Ismail was going into East Jerusalem to photograph a concert. As he had space in his car, he asked me if I wanted to come along. The concert was with students from The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music ( The Conservatory is a Palestinian music school with an emphasis on classical European and Palestinian music. It’s based in East Jerusalem but also has another building in Birzeit, just outside of Ramallah. This is where they run their summer school. I’d visited the department in Birzeit before when I’d gone to a reception for a mural created by local Palestinian artists that ran along the entire front of the building. The mural was made up of a long musical staff with the melody of the Palestinian national anthem on it. On top of the staff, local artists had painted pictures of young Palestinians playing various classical instruments. The incorporation of the nationalist aspect into the musical conservatory came across very clearly. It appeared to be based on a rationale that says ‘if you are to have a nation, you also need to establish a national culture’. When it comes to music, here it seems to be aimed at a kind of mixture of European classical and Palestinian folklore.

We arrived at The Mormon University where the concert was going to take place. Yes, all versions of all kinds of religions are represented in Jerusalem and The Mormon University certainly isn’t just a smaller building amongst the others. They have a very exclusive, large and relatively new, Modernist style building on one of the hills east of Jerusalem’s Old City. It was air conditioned and uniformed security guards showed us the way to the concert hall in polite American. Everything was very posh and I wondered who actually studies here. Young people do tend to leave their marks on architecture but here there weren’t any signs of life and the atmosphere was a bit like being in a church. The first thing that struck me when we went into the concert hall was that the back wall of the space was made up of a large piece of glass that gave you a view over Jerusalem’s Old City with the Dome of the Rock mosque as the centre piece. It was a very overwhelming view and seen through a glass window from a cool, air conditioned room it makes the entire scenery seem like a postcard. The hall began to fill up, seemingly with mostly family and friends of the music students. Everyone was dressed quite formally.

Then the concert began, apparently with the youngest students first. I don’t know if I’m just getting older and was missing my daughter at home in Denmark but it was so touching to see the little ones sitting there playing their instruments. First there was a little girl in a nice white dress who was no older than five years old and who played a small violin. I think it was J.S. Scholze’s Dance Song. The program was mainly in Arabic so it wasn’t easy to figure out who was playing what. Then there was another girl who was maybe six years old who played another classical piece on her mini-cello. It was a little mechanical, playing back and forth with the bow and with a blank expression on her face and her eyes looking straight ahead being neither in contact with the music nor the audience. However, when she’d finished, her face lit up and she bowed and hurried down to her friends from the music school who were sitting in the first row. One by one they played mainly European music with a few traditional Palestinian pieces every now and then that used a tabla and a string instrument that I don’t know the name of. These traditional pieces were played with the same concentration and devotion as the other classical pieces and it was quite powerful to see all these Palestinian children do everything to recreate a European high culture in front of a backdrop of the beloved Jerusalem — also when the violin didn’t quite hit the right note. I couldn’t help asking myself what it meant that so much weight is put on a classical cultural education. Of course, many of the young musicians were really talented and it was very touching to see their well deserved pride after they showed us what they could do but for me, as a European, there was also a discrepancy and something very melancholic about seeing the young ones sitting in front of the lost Jerusalem, reproducing a European culture which has rarely helped the Palestinian cause much.

No comments: