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From 4-16 August 2019, 80 musicians aged between 14 and 25 from Palestine and the diaspora will gather in Europe for a series of concerts that will take them to Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands. The tour, called Ode to Love, is an eclectic mix of Arabic and Western classical pieces that focus on the tour’s theme.
The Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO) was founded in 2004 by Suhail Khoury, general director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), with the mission to foster the talent of young Palestinian musicians and tour the world. Over the years, the PYO has performed in Palestine, Germany, France, Jordan, Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, Greece and Italy. The orchestra meets annually for a one-week residential course followed by a concert tour. Since 2012, the ESNCM has developed a partnership with the Oslo Philharmonic, with members of the Norwegian orchestra coaching the sections of the PYO.
Rania Elias, director of Yabous Cultural Centre in Jerusalem, described the PYO as “a revolution in the music world in Palestine,” adding, “There was nothing before.” For the first time, the ESNCM, which has locations in most cities in Palestine including Gaza City, is awarding diplomas to its graduating students. Two years ago, Birzeit University in Birzeit also added an art and music degree to its curriculum.
One of the biggest challenges remains freedom of movement in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Music teachers cannot travel between the various locations in the West Bank, let alone Gaza. If there is a performance in Jerusalem or Gaza, it is almost impossible to get all the musicians together in one place. International teachers also face visa difficulties from Israel. Due to the Israeli blockade, Gaza is particularly isolated. There is a limited number of local music teachers in the enclave, according to Elias, and occasionally new instruments and no one to teach them. Alternative methods, such as Skype, have proven invaluable for providing remove lessons to Gazans, she said
Some musicians from Gaza were denied travel permits by the Israeli authorities to join the tour. Nai Barghouti, a 22-year-old flute player, composer and singer from Ramallah who is studying in the Netherlands and has a growing reputation in the Middle East and Europe, will be the soloist this year. She said of the musicians who could not travel, “Every year we have problems with this. Some colleagues cannot join. We are united together with music, having access to music is a human right to me, but in Palestine art is a privilege, especially in Gaza. It just makes our message even stronger, musically and as a statement: despite those issues and rejections, despite the checkpoints, we’ll be able to unite and make music.”
The tour will end with a concert in one of Europe’s most important venues, the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam. “It is the first time that the orchestra will perform in the Netherlands while they have already performed in other countries in Europe, so it is about time, and we are all excited about it,” Heba el-Kholy, director of the Lutfia Rabbani Foundation, told Fanack. “In Europe, the image of Palestinian youth is stereotypical, with the media often focusing on images of young people throwing stones. The PYO gives people another side of the story: brilliant young musicians who love life and music like youth all over the world, and who bring with them to Europe a message of courage and hope. Music builds empathy, it connects people, it humanizes.”
A particular novelty this year – and in keeping with the foundation’s mission of connecting youth through cultural and educational exchanges – will be the opportunity for the Palestinian musicians to play with the Dutch Youth Orchestra. “Together, they can create something original and spontaneous and both learn from and learn about each other,” said el-Kholy.
“Music is the easiest way to connect people and bring a message to the world about how beautiful Palestine and its culture are,” added Vincent de Kort, this year’s conductor from the Netherlands. “The power of music is that everybody understands it, it can cross bridges.” He is not worried about the ability of the musicians to play together for the first time, he said. “Like in a jam session, everyone will understand each other. And we are finishing in the Netherlands, in one of the most beautiful concert halls in the world. It’s our glorious grand finale, a lot of work was put into achieving this. I am very proud to be part of this project, of my musicians and of being able to introduce this music to people.”
De Kort is not the only one looking forward to performing. Reem Shareef, a 21-year-old violist from Jerusalem, only started playing music five years ago. This is her first experience with the PYO. “I feel very grateful to be part of it and happy to meet my colleagues in Norway,” she told Fanack. “It’s sad not being able to meet in Palestine, and my own family can’t come to see me perform because they weren’t granted visas. This situation is unfair, and I hope one day it will change.”
For 19-year-old Lamar Elias, a violinist from Bethlehem who is studying music in Toulouse, France, playing with the PYO has had a major impact on her, both personally and professionally. “I realized how important and professional the orchestra is when I started playing with other orchestras in Europe,” she said. “We have very good coaches and the tours brought me a lot of experience and confidence. We also don’t represent just music; we represent our country. And overall, the level is very high and the team professional, which is also important.”
This love of Palestinian music and culture is evident in the way the PYO works and evolves each year. With this new tour, all those involved hope to use music to start a new conversation about what being Palestinian means.