REQUIEM IN RAMALLAH

By Noam Ben Ze’ev

English singers performing ‘The Magic Flute’ in Bethlehem. ‘Cultural life in Israeli and Palestinian society should not fall victim to the security situation,’ says John Harte, a singer in the Choir of London. (Lior Mizrahi / Baubau)

The name Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has not been heard so frequently in the West Bank as in the past two weeks, during the Palestinian Mozart Festival. Fifty works by this great composer, some of them very rare, were performed in every musical art form: from solo songs to operas, and from chamber ensembles to orchestras. More than half the musicians were Palestinians; the others came from around the world. Some 20 concerts, as well as films, master classes and workshops, brought the music of this 18th century Viennese to West Bank towns for the first time.

Would they come, or wouldn’t they? This was the question that hung in the air in the two hours preceding the Choir of London concert at the Al Masri Cultural Centre in Nablus. Sami Hamad, director of the center and responsible for the festival in his city, chain-smoked as he waited.

“There is an important wedding in the city,” he sighed, “and it is simply impossible to tell if an audience will come.”

At 4 P.M. yellow cabs began arriving, bringing the dozens of choir members and musicians, who had spent the morning teaching the city’s children in master classes. Now they quickly set up for a rehearsal inside, leaving the large plaza in front of the center to its silence.

Only at 5:45 P.M. did Hamed allow himself to breathe easier as the audience began to arrive in a slow trickle. Half an hour later, with the opening bars of the clarinet quintet, he could even smile: The hall was completely full.

As the air resonated to the rich sounds of the quintet, superbly performed by passionate American clarinetist Douglas Metcalf and a string quartet from England, one could forget for a moment the context in which the concert was taking place.

The same could be said afterward, as the choir sang Ave Verum and the rare and lovely Miserere K. 85, conducted by Jeremy Summerly. In this work, the young Mozart incorporated Gregorian chants, sung here by a soloist from the second floor of the hall.

The audience, at first glance, was like any other audience, apart from the children aged 6-8, who sat in total silence, staring wide-eyed at ensemble the likes of which they had never seen. Every guest, however, who passed through the series of checkpoints on his way to the city and had spoken with a few of its inhabitants, knew how different these listeners were from those at other concerts.

Confined to their city, in poverty that in some parts includes hunger, afraid to leave their homes at night and subject to both invasions by the Israel Defense Forces and threats from the local hooligans, to these residents, Mozart was a momentary comfort.

“Nablus is a sad city,” said one, as he left the hall. “The spirit has been damaged most of all,” said Ayman al-Shaka’a, director of the youth culture center in Nablus, as he sat in his office.

“People learn to reconcile themselves to the situation, and this means losing hope, losing the desire to change things, and the death of initiatives. We are trying to find budgets for a musical education program for children, because they get nothing here, and we are afraid of what the next generation will look like.”

Magic in Bethlehem

Bethlehem, the day after Easter, looks empty. Here and there is a tour bus from Nazareth or Haifa, but the tourists have disappeared. Only the town’s congress building shows signs of activity as 7 P.M. approaches.

“Tonight: ‘The Magic Flute,’ by Mozart. Entrance: NIS 15” announces a small yellow poster at the entry, and the audience is already beginning to fill the small auditorium on the ground floor. “Many people advised us not to come,” says John Harte, a singer in the Choir of London and one of the Mozart Festival’s two musical directors. “‘Raise money,’ they told us. ‘Form a lobby for the Palestinians, but don’t come. Now is not the time.’

“Others actually encouraged us, because they feel the cultural life in the two societies – the Palestinian and the Israeli – should not fall victim to the security situation, and the Palestinians must not suffer worse cultural isolation than they already are. It is important for them to continue to feel part of the international community.

” Harte and his colleague, co-director Michael Stevens, can be seen at all the concerts, including in Jerusalem and Kfar Shmaryahu, as if they have duplicated themselves: singing in the choir, selling connectedness, working as stage hands and solving a zillion problems over the telephone.

On this chilly evening in Bethlehem, however, there seem to be no problems that need solving, and it was a pleasure to see and hear how the choir coped with the bare-bones production.

The stage setting was a charming, minimalist stage by Paul Willis, the direction by well-known English actor Samuel West was precise and tasteful, and every scene was a visual feast.

Best of all was the musical execution, with a small ensemble of nine musicians, conducted by Nicholas Collon with a group of young singers, most of them students at the Royal Academy in London.

It was nice to be reminded of English singing, which is not a common offering on Israeli stages: the special voices of the English, whose years of singing in children’s choirs are evident, their wonderful technique and the personality of the singers, replete with understatement and refinement, and above all, humor.

All these resulted in a delightful production, the kind that challenge large-scale productions and prove that wonderful opera can be presented in chamber version.

“Five-star prison” is the nickname Ramallah has earned in recent years.

Unlike other cities, such as Nablus, Jenin or Qalqilya, which are groaning under their heavy restrictions and where the suffering is evident in their streets, empty stores and desolate nights, downtown Ramallah is bustling with life day and night, ostensibly in a gay atmosphere of freedom.

It is sufficient to attempt to enter or leave via the checkpoints, however, with their high oppressive walls, to feel the intensity of the prison concept.

On the outskirts of the city is the cultural hall that was completed three years ago, with its sophisticated, spacious auditorium that filled with 700 people who had come for the festivals finale: a gala symphony concert with overtures and arias from Mozart’s operas, choir pieces sung by over 100 voices and lastly, the Requiem, Mozart’s final work.

Like all the other performances at the festival, this evening’s concert included a rare piece: the scena and rondo for soprano and violin with orchestra, K. 490.

This piece, like K. 505 the recitative and aria for soprano, piano and orchestra, which was written in a similar tone a few months later, is perhaps the most personal and emotional piece ever written by Mozart, and this duo amazes with its sweeping drama, the feeling emanating from every sound, and the composer’s operatic virtuosity.

Musical harmony among the nations

The Palestinians can be proud of two of their soloist who showed their creative strengths: international soprano and Jordanian native Dima Bawab and 14-year-old violinist Jenna Barghouti, who left the audience astonished by her light, intuitive technique, which was perfect.

“This tour made us realize that music has far more roles than we imagined,” says Harte. “Not only musical harmony, which is supposed to encourage harmony between nations, as many think, but also a means of objecting, a socio-political declaration, an expression of despair in politics and its failures and also an outlet from stress and worry.”

“On tours around the world we usually travel between the hotel and the concert halls, then visit a few attractions,” adds Summerly. “Here we were hosted in the singers’ homes and spent two and a half weeks touring Palestinian towns. Easter is the busiest holiday for European choirs.

“There is a tremendous amount of work, but if the choice is between making lots of money in London and Germany, or singing here on Easter, I have no doubt what we and the choir prefer.”

Source: Ha Aretz

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