Palestine Strings strike a political chord at London Proms

Nigel Kennedy and a group of young Palestinian musicians recently blew the cobwebs from Vivaldi's most famous work in a performance at the BBC Proms. We talk to the Palestine Strings about the politics of playing in London. 

In a room in London’s Royal Albert Hall, six teenage boys lark about with their violins in ways that are definitely not approved classical practice. The wooden thunk of bow-on-belly percussion accompanies their wild Arab fiddling until eventually the speed runs away, the rhythm is lost and they all snigger and put their long-suffering instruments away.

These are some of the 17 youthful members of the Palestine Strings, who last week performed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with Nigel Kennedy, the British violinist.

Kennedy brought the students of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), Palestine's largest and fastest-growing music school, to London for one night, but what a night it turned out to be. In a way that is unprecedented, Kennedy and the Palestine Strings, along with Polish members of his own Orchestra of Life, took this well-worn classic, deconstructed it and then put it back together with interludes of jazz, gipsy and, most notably, Arab flourishes and improvisations.

Kennedy is well known for his iconoclastic approach to formal classical music, says the orchestra’s general manager Tim Pottier, adding that it is an approach to which the students of the Conservatory are uniquely suited.

“A lot of young Palestinian music students are schooled both in Western classical music and traditional Arab music, and they’re used to improvising,” he says. “As for Nigel, he likes to improvise and try new things. Obviously this is the piece he has played more than any other, and he could do things with it that young English music students generally wouldn’t be able to do, but for them it’s completely natural.”

No moment showed that more clearly than when Kennedy and one of the Conservatory's star students, the kaffiyeh-draped 13-year-old Ghandi Saad, turned the ornamented Baroque music of Spring into sinuous Arabesques in a spectacular musical duel.

“With Nigel Kennedy, you should learn not to be surprised because he’s gonna surprise you,” says the 16-year-old violinist Costa Mustaklem. “You have to be alert all the time to new changes – even in the concert he may do something a little bit different.”

Another violinist, Naseem Rimawi, 16, describes the experience of playing with Kennedy as “awesomeness everywhere. He has lots of crazy ideas. He mixes the Western and Oriental sounds with Vivaldi, which is an awesome idea, because Baroque at that time had the same touches as Oriental”.

Indeed, the meeting of cultures is no mere gimmick, and it added some real fire to the well-trodden path of the Four Seasons.

For Suhail Khoury, General Director of the ESNCM, it can only help raise the international profile of the Conservatory and its ensembles.

“I’m sure that it has been a big eye-opener for all of classical music and now it’s going to be easier for us to promote the Palestine Youth Orchestra and the Palestine National Orchestra,” he says.

Yet watching the students playing around backstage, before performing with utter professionalism before their 6,000-strong audience, it is hard to imagine the difficulties they face when rehearsing in Palestine, and impossible to disentangle the ensemble’s existence from the politics surrounding it.

“I have a Jordanian passport so it’s easier for me, but for others, sometimes they miss concerts and it’s hard to get together,” says the 14-year-old cellist Jude Amous.

That doesn’t put her off playing, though. “It makes my life more challenging and I love that. It makes me feel that I have a goal, that I’m going somewhere. It’s getting me to these places and playing new pieces with amazing artists such as Nigel – it’s a big, significant part of my life.”

Her positive outlook is typical of the teenagers, but young as they are, they are acutely aware of the importance of these events.

“This is musical and political,” says Mustaklem. “Musical because we will do beautiful stuff musically, and political because, yes, we are Palestinian. We’re saying to the people: ‘Here we are – we’re not any different. We’re like all the world. Hear us out.’”

The kaffiyeh worn in the concert is national dress, of course, but it’s also a reminder of their daily struggles; and Kennedy’s words from the stage on “apartheid” made the politics manifest. This, after all, is the hall in which pro-Palestinian protesters disrupted a performance by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during 2011’s Proms.

“Everybody’s involved in politics,” points out Khoury. “To cross a checkpoint is politics in Palestine. We become experts in problem-solving and getting people across checkpoints and so on. We try to make it as easy as we can for them but they also are part of this – even when they play Vivaldi or Dvorak, they still feel that they are playing as a political act.

“Just being there and performing as a Palestinian orchestra is in itself an important act of existence, pride and dignity.”

When Mostafa Saad and Kennedy performed together the exquisitely grave middle movement of Vivaldi’s double concerto for violin in A minor, only the music mattered. And that, hard though it is to achieve, is when art triumphs.

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