The healing power of young musicians coming together to make music against the odds is a compelling proposition, and emotions were not far from the surface as the Palestine Youth Orchestra opened their first UK tour in Perth. Founded in 2004 by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, the orchestra brings young players from Palestine and the Palestinian diaspora together with a few players from host nations when on tour. With this mix of players, it is difficult to rehearse in Palestine (sadly, a trumpet player and violinist were both refused the visas required for them to leave Gaza) so the players and tutors have spent the week in Glasgow being hosted by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. The orchestra has a policy of featuring a mix of classical with Palestinian and Arab composers in its programming, and the appearance of the players in concert black each wearing the traditional black and white keffiyeh promised a very different musical experience.

Sian Edwards © Katie Vandyck
Sian Edwards
© Katie Vandyck

Beethoven’s Fidelio with its story of hope and freedom set against repression and cruelty is played out in miniature in Leonore Overture no. 3, a fine opener for difficult times. With economical gestures, conductor Sian Edwards kept a tight rein allowing a slow build from darkness in the strings, excitingly together even in the tricky development passages, and a lovely bight flute solo. A clear offstage trumpet high up behind us heralded freedom for Fidelio and Florestan as the piece ended with the rich full orchestral sound.  

Moving into Arabic mode, the orchestra was joined for three songs by Nai Barghouti, a talented young professional singer and former principal flute player with the orchestra. Ahtarifu al Huzna wal Intithar, from the musical River of Return by the Rahbani brothers, was a haunting study of grief, tears and growing up away from home (the Six-Day War in 1967 displaced over 300,000 Palestinians, many for the second time). The basses droned softly and Barghouti’s pure sinuous tones intertwined with a bassoon, then a flute against a high sustained violin before the full orchestra echoed her passion as the music died away. Bi Ridhak ya Khaliqi by Zakaria Ahmad consisted of improvised violin and oud with cello drone. A gentle and hauntingly beautiful piece, the players and singer alternated solos and were completely lost in the music, blending together perfectly. Finally, Ruddani ila Biladi by the Rahbani brothers was a song about wishing to return to one’s own country, a powerful metaphor for displaced peoples everywhere. Soft, ethereal glissandi in the strings sounded like far-off flocks of birds, and Barghouti’s voice soared as the music became a passionate Arabic oom-pah in two time with a lively bendy clarinet solo.

Graham Fitkin’s Metal was chosen from a list of UK submissions to be the orchestra’s homage to contemporary British classical music. Full of energy, it is a youth orchestra’s dream and a huge show-off piece for the five percussionists who begin by hitting untuned scaffold tubing as the orchestra builds energetic loops. Edwards guided the mayhem and kept the players positively riveted together in this entertaining piece which demanded utmost precision from all.

Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is both well-known and fiendishly tricky for a youth orchestra to pull off with its big demands on the brass and, more particularly, the woodwind. Edwards again brought control and clarity to the players, as well as encouraging a sinister edge to the music in the brass “Promenade and Gnomus”. A melancholy saxophone in the “Old Castle” gave way to colourful woodwinds in the Parisian “Tuileries” who also got to really show off in the “Ballet of the Chicks in their Shells”. The strings in powerful unison depicted the rich and poor Jews, Goldberg and Schmuyle. The players attacked the piece with a passion, letting loose with “Baba Yaga”, the bass drum player using both sticks in one hand for maximum punch. Finally, with the Kiev bells ringing out over the Great Gate, our thrilling gallery visit was over all too soon. An encore of Arnold’s Scottish Dance no. 3 brought us down to earth from that climax.

Throughout the evening, some players from the orchestra said a few words encouraging us to read into the programming, explaining that the tour is intended to build bridges and relationships. They also explained how taken they were with their host city, whose slogan “People Make Glasgow” was immediately adapted into “People Make Palestine” and “People Make the Palestine Youth Orchestra”. This was an inspiring evening of music, but with a serious undercurrent made more poignant because young players were carrying the humanitarian message.

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