The Syrian Orchestra Delights with Youthful Enthusiasm

A review by Sami Asmar of a 1999 concert in Los Angeles - Reprinted from the Arab Community Magazine

Classical music may be European in origin but is universal in acceptance, appreciation, and performance. Practically every large city in the industrial western world has a regional orchestra and every country of a sizable economy has a national orchestra that performs classical music. Local governments and people consider them a symbol of a well-developed society. Asian nations, for example, are producing some of the best musicians of the world and their touring orchestras sell out even in Europe. Arab countries, however, have not had a strong association with western classical music, except for a period in Egyptian history when the monarchy actively brought European orchestras and opera companies to perform and teach. So, when an Arab nation produces a high quality symphony orchestra, everyone notices.

Syria has been historically recognized as a leader of traditional Arabic music and the city of Aleppo is one of the centers for purists who visit for a dose of muwashahat and qudud halabbiya. In recent years, Syria has obviously made an effort at a national level to form a symphony orchestra that can now tour in the West. Formed only five years ago following the establishment of the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra performed two shows that constituted its debut in the U.S. All indications show that the members varied in experience and age, tending to be young graduates and students of the institute, mixed with a number of Russian musicians residing in Syria. Excitement and enthusiasm filled the stage as the performers showed how happy they were to present their art.

The two shows in Southern California had different programs but both emphasized works by Beethoven, half of each show. Director Solhi Al-Wadi conducted capably and beautifully, understated at times, and clearly proud to show off his students and colleagues. Al-Wadi received his advanced training in London's Royal Academy of Music and, in addition to conducting and fulfilling duties of the Institute's Dean, he composes extensively for the orchestra, a collective effort for which he had received a presidential award. The second show included his moving composition "Meditation on a Theme by M. Abdel Wahab." His daughter Hamsa is the soloist who played Mozart's piano concerto in D Minor; she started studying at age 6 and currently holds a position of professor at the Helsinki Sibeluis Academy.

Another notable soloist is violinist Bassam Nashawati who excitedly performed Beethoven's concerto in D Major. The Damascus-born Nashawati also started studying at six years of age under several Russian professors and later moved to the US for a graduate degree and eventually joined the New World Symphony of Miami Beach. Under credited in pre-concert press releases is Soprano singer Lubana Quntar who splendidly sang Habanera from Bizet's Carmen. This well kept secret is a young graduate of the Institute who participated in the orchestra's first major production, the opera "Dido and Aeneas." Only a few months ago, Lubana won Fourth Prize in the Belgrade Competition for Voice.

Can an Arab orchestra get away without a touch of Arabic music? No, in fact, the Maqam Shahnaz For Lute And Strings (Juan Karajoli, 'ud solo) and Poem For Qanoon And Orchestra (Imad Melki, qanun solo) may even be considered the highlights of the evening. Both compositions were by Azerbaijani artists, Adel Jeray and Suleiman Aliskirov, respectively. Despite featuring the Arabic traditional instruments, 'ud and qanun, the compositions were not of Arab character. While the elements of western music include harmony, melody, and rhythm, elements of traditional Arabic music do not include harmony; Arabic music is modal in structure rather than harmonic. Also, the particular maqam (Shahnaz) was not one of the more typical Arabic maqamat that include microtones. The fact that harmony was present and microtones were absent did not take away from the beauty of the work and mastery of the performers; they were befitting a symphony orchestra.

The weekend performances of the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra attracted the Arab-American community and music lovers at large. Full of curiosity, perhaps non-Arabs looked for a novelty or hoped for exoticism from the Middle Eastern orchestra, as in the case of the Los Angeles Times music critic who found more "exoticism from the elegant audience." Arabs were also curious but attended mostly to support the effort.

It seemed that all expectations were met satisfactorily from the repeated standing ovations and request for encores. The logistics of travel, accommodations, and hall arrangements are not a simple undertaking for such a large group (numbering 75 according to a press release), and is typically not a moneymaking operation. Officials in Syria and the U.S. clearly saw an opportunity for cultural exchange worthy of the effort and all those responsible for carrying it out, including the Honorary Consul General and the Arab American Medical Association, deserve tremendous appreciation.