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The Palestine Youth Orchestra

The Best Ambassador for Palestine

By Suhail Khoury

As conductor Sian Edwards lifted her hands, signaling to the 80 musicians of the Palestine Youth Orchestra (PYO) that she was ready to start the concert at the packed Royal Festival Hall in London, there was total silence and anticipation in the hall. It was most likely that none of the 2,700 attendees had heard the PYO before, as this was their first performance in the United Kingdom. As soon as the Palestinian musicians, draped with their Palestinian hattah (checkered scarves), started to play Beethoven’s “Leonore Overture No. 3,” I could immediately see a variety of emotions on the faces of the spectators. A few, who from their looks were probably of Palestinian descent, were in tears. The same tears of combined happiness and pride that I still get every time I listen to the PYO in concert. Others who probably came to the performance not knowing what to expect had a little smile on their faces and a slight glow in their eyes as if to say, “Wow, I did not expect this.” I do not think that the audience expected an orchestra coming from under a brutal military occupation to be performing classical music and sounding as good as some of the best youth orchestras in the world.This outstanding resonance was the combined sound of young and energetic Palestinian musicians from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music and other music schools in Palestine and the diaspora where they live or study. Musically, the PYO is remarkable in its sounds and repertoire as it always includes in its programming orchestral pieces influenced by Palestinian and Arabic music. This amalgamation gives the orchestra its unique character and attracts attention. That concert in the summer of 2016 saw the most prolonged applause and standing ovation that the PYO had ever received. What felt like ten minutes of clapping had passed when the crowd finally succumbed after a magnificent finale with Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.” This concert was a landmark as the PYO reached a significant level of artistry that surpassed any of its previous shows. The Palestinian orchestra followed its London success three years later with a north European tour that climaxed at the magnificent Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, and the reception from the packed 2,000-seat hall was similar to that in London. After both concerts, we repeatedly heard the same remark from diverse groups: “You are the best ambassadors of your country.” All our actual political ambassadors to the various countries we visited assured us of the veracity of this assessment.As these famous European concert halls had organized the concerts for the Palestine Youth Orchestra as part of their regular seasonal programming, they attracted their usual mainstream classical music lovers and not necessarily people involved in the solidarity movement with Palestine. That made us appreciate the audience’s response even more. It was unnecessary to say anything political before the concert or write anything in the program to inform about Palestine, the occupation, or our suppression and agonies at home. The music was enough. The Palestinian scarf on the shoulders of all players was subtle enough to announce to all spectators that this is the true face of Palestine and that, like any other nation, Palestinians can excel if given the opportunity.

PYO at the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam 2019. Photo by Suhail Khoury.

The Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM) established the Palestine Youth Orchestra in 2004 as a project orchestra with a vision to bring together young Palestinian musicians worldwide. Young Palestinian musicians come from countries where their parents or grandparents had immigrated or taken refuge after having been displaced during the Nakba or the 1967 occupation of the rest of Palestine. The idea was and still is to unify these young musicians in one Palestinian project that reflects the true nature of Palestine and gives those from the diaspora an actual sense of belonging. In 2004, as I was not allowed to travel to Jordan myself, I sent Mohammed Fadel, the conservatory’s violin teacher, to look for young musicians of Palestinian descent in Jordan and Syria. The ESNCM at that time had taught string instruments for only a few years, and merely a handful of its students were ready to play in an orchestra. To build a wind section, we created a scheme to lure advanced piano students into studying wind instruments to cover needed players. I remember how my daughter Zeina, who had been playing piano for some years then, took on the bassoon and within a few months sat in the woodwind section in Jarash at the orchestra’s launching in the summer of 2004. Fadel had been able to recruit more than twenty young Palestinians from Syria and Jordan. Other musicians of Palestinian descent, many of whom could not speak Arabic, came from as far away as Latin America and Australia. The Palestinians of Jordan embraced the orchestra wholeheartedly and enthusiastically out of national pride.

PYO at Beit el Dine Festival, Lebanon 2009. Photo courtesy of the Festival.

PYO at the Ravello festival, Italy 2012. Photo by Suhail Khoury.

The PYO has come a long way since that first performance in Jordan and has performed in some of the most prestigious concert halls in the world and at renowned festivals, including in Ravello, Italy, Aix-en-Provence, France, and Beiteddine, Lebanon. What was an annual summer event has become a biennial event as the project evolved and tours became financially more demanding. The countries that the PYO has toured, other than Palestine and Jordan, include Germany, Greece, Lebanon, Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, Syria, Bahrain, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and the Netherlands. The last tour took place in 2022, with performances in Turkiye at the invitation of HE Ms. Emine Erdogan. The orchestra visited President Erdogan in his palace in Ankara and played a repertoire that included Western classical, Arabic, and Turkish compositions in the capital’s prestigious Presidential Concert Hall and at Istanbul’s Ataturk Cultural Center.

PYO members with President Erdugan, Turkiye, 2022. Photo courtesy of the Presidency.

Other prominent concert halls that have hosted the orchestra include the Oman Opera, the Dubai Opera, Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, and the famous Megaron of Athens. The ESNCM has invited many conductors to lead the PYO over the last 19 years, most prominently Sian Edwards of the United Kingdom, Vincent de Kort of the Netherlands, and French conductor Nicolas Simon. In the summer of 2024, and on its twentieth anniversary, the PYO will be back for a home tour of Palestine and Jordan in a landmark performance that promises to astound audiences and give them joy and pride. On which anticipated international stage the PYO will be performing after that is still to be confirmed at the time of writing this article.

  • Suhail Khoury is the general director of the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, the conductor of various ensembles, and a composer. He plays the clarinet and the ney.

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