How the New York Arabic Orchestra is rebuilding to become 'a strong force'

Artistic director and acclaimed violinist Layth Sidiq on the ensemble's plans as they return to stage after a pandemic-enforced hiatus

The orchestra's expansive repertoire is shaped by the Iraqi-Jordanian Layth Sidiq’s own journeys. Photo: Layth Sidiq
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Expect a vibrant programme when the New York Arabic Orchestra launches its performance season in September. The renowned ensemble, specialising in Arabic classical and traditional music, will perform in the US, with dates and details to be released soon.

The news marks a new and bittersweet milestone for the institution, which returns to the stage after two years and under new leadership.

Iraqi-Jordanian violinist and composer Layth Sidiq was appointed the ensemble's new artistic director in 2021, after the death of his predecessor and the orchestra’s co-founder Bassam Saba. The pioneering musician reportedly succumbed to complications from Covid-19 in his native Lebanon.

Speaking to The National on the one-year anniversary of his appointment, Sidiq hopes the most challenging periods are over for the group.

An avid basketball fan, he uses a sports metaphor to describe the orchestra’s current situation.

"There are teams that have the budget to bring in any player they want to win the championship,” he says. “We, on the other hand, are in a rebuilding phase. We are a younger team and with a new culture that, in perhaps two or three years, will be a strong force."

In addition to the immense loss of Saba, the lack of shows and physical rehearsals owing to Covid-19 resulted in the loss of valuable funding and personnel. Before the pandemic, the orchestra boasted up to 30 members, whereas it has now slimmed down to 22, with weekly practice sessions recently moving from Zoom to in-person.

Education at play

It will also be an orchestra with an expansive repertoire shaped by Sidiq’s own journeys. Born in Iraq and picking up the violin at the age of 4, he went on to study at The National Music Conservatory in Jordan.

As well as landing a scholarship at Boston's Berklee College of Music, Sidiq supported a number of jazz and world music artists at global tours, including Indian composer AR Rahman and Palestinian-American multi-instrumentalist Simon Shaheen.

The latter performed at New York University Abu Dhabi's The Arts Centre on April 15, with Sidiq as part of his ensemble.

Layth Sidiq performs in NYU Abu Dhabi's The Arts Centre as part of Palestinian-American musician Simon Shaheen's ensemble. Photo: Waleed Shah

In addition to the orchestra and his solo touring schedule, Sidiq also serves as director of the Centre for Arabic Culture's Youth Orchestra in Boston, a music education programme spreading awareness of Arabic music among US youth.

That blend of modern, classic and traditional will be at the heart of the New York Arabic Orchestra's coming programme.

"Education will also play a major role in that," Sidiq says. "We want to collaborate with musicians, whether they are new in New York or in the north-east of the United States, in places like Boston and Washington DC, as well as cultivating a new community of musicians who are also creating in their respective areas.

“We want them to join us in not only playing important music of the past, but also what is new and that's done today.”

That message of exploration will also be delivered across US schools and institutions.

"Most of the time, when it comes to music education in the US and even in the Middle East, the focus is on western European music,” he says. “That's what I studied as a young child in Jordan, but why wasn't I also taught music from the Arab world? Music education should be more inclusive of not just Arabic but other cultures as well.

“This will help bring social change and this is what the orchestra does.”

A homecoming

While the focus is on tuning in non-Arabic audiences into the richness of the art form, nothing beats the thrill of performing in the region, says Sidiq. Prior to playing with Shaheen in Abu Dhabi, Sidiq was in Iraq with his own ensemble for a moving performance at Mosul Museum.

“This was the first time I was in Iraq after 30 years and the warmth we received was touching," he says. "And that was not because of me, but it was from people hungry to hear music in a city that was so damaged by war.

“It was emotional for me because these are some of the things we take for granted as musicians who tour and perform. For many other people, this is not their reality."

It was also on stage, beneath the museum’s regal chandeliers, where Sidiq reached another realisation.

"This was a place where, not a long time ago, ISIS was breaking statues and destroying precious artefacts," he says. "It just proved to me how art always has a way of prevailing.”

More information on the New York Arabic Orchestra is available at nyarabicorchestra.org

Updated: April 20, 2022, 11:32 AM