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Bethlehem: A Bright Future in Music

Contributed by This Week In Palestine on 22.12.2010:

By Michele Cantoni

This Week in Palestine

December 2010

The importance each society gives to music and to music education varies considerably throughout the world. Alongside the role music plays in a given place at any given moment, what is interesting is the way in which that role varies over time. Contrary to the tendency in most Western countries, where musical activities are shrinking due to financial and short-sighted political reasons, in Palestine both music education and musical activities are in constant expansion. Until now this has happened on the initiative of private institutions, but the trend will hopefully extend at some point to public ones as well.

Despite the ever increasing subjugation by Israeli oppression and the strangulation of Palestinian towns by a growing network of Jewish colonies, apartheid roads, and walls, Palestinian society has succeeded over the past two decades in developing a growing network of music institutions, music festivals, and concerts, attracting musicians and attention from all over the world.

In this context, a leading role is played by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), both the largest and the fastest growing music-teaching institution in Palestine. Besides its regular academic activities – with over 700 students and 45 teachers – the ESNCM runs several orchestras, national music competitions, festivals, concerts, workshops, summer and winter camps, and international concert tours.

Since the opening of its first branch in 1993 in Ramallah, the ESNCM has added branches in Jerusalem (1996), Bethlehem (1997), and Nablus (2010). Next on the ESNCM agenda is the opening of branches in Jericho, Hebron, and Gaza. An extensive outreach programme is in place with ESNCM teachers and advanced students who travel from the ESNCM branches to offer music tuition in cultural centres in Hebron, Tubas, Salfit, Jericho, and other communities throughout Palestine. This programme plays an important role in achieving the ESNCM’s goal of reaching all sectors of Palestinian society.

The Ramallah-based Al-Sahel Company for Institutional Development and Communication is carrying out a study, on behalf of the ESNCM, whose overall objective is “to assess the developmental, social and psychological impact of the ESNCM’s educational and performing music programmes.”

Such an assessment is valuable in order for Palestinian music institutions to both operate in the most effective way and gauge the impact of their work on individuals, families, local communities, and Palestinian society in general. The impact actually extends well beyond Palestine when young Palestinian musicians perform in other countries or when international media attention is brought to the musical life within Palestine. This is an essential contribution towards redressing an image of Palestine which is usually distorted through the prism of Zionist mythology and propaganda.

Many groups of ESNCM students and teachers have performed abroad over the past years, establishing links with a growing number of institutions and communities. The Bethlehem branch of the ESNCM has played a vital role in this sense: its Arabic Ensemble has had tremendous success in recent tours of Chile and Spain, also managing to ensure financial contributions for the construction of its new building in Beit Sahour which should be completed by summer 2011. The new building – the first purpose-built ESNCM branch – will provide more than a space for music education; with a concert hall, a cafeteria, and extended opening hours it is meant to become a pole of attraction for the local community.

Given that music is often not recognised as playing a vital role in society, fundraising for building conservatoires or for music projects can be a very frustrating job. In the Palestinian context this is aggravated by the fact that foreign organisations and governments tend to favour the funding of bilateral proposals, ones which will involve Israelis as well as Palestinians. This “balanced” approach – in no way limited to music projects – is a clearly unacceptable one which perpetuates misrepresenting the reality in Palestine/Israel as a “conflict” rather than the outright abuse it is. In line with this approach, Bethlehem has seen guest orchestras from Europe perform Christmas “Concerts for Peace” every year in the Nativity Church. The same concerts were then repeated to audiences in West Jerusalem the following day. The increased presence of ESNCM ensembles in Christmas musical activities in Bethlehem will hopefully at some point help redress this situation.

At the end of this month Bethlehem will host the musicians of the Palestine National Orchestra (PNO), the latest major ESNCM orchestral project. The first professional Palestinian orchestra to be established since the Nakba, the PNO will perform a programme that combines Western symphonic repertoire with the work of Palestinian and Arab composers. Its debut, following three days of rehearsals in Bethlehem, will be on 31 December in Ramallah with subsequent concerts in Jerusalem and Haifa.

The success of Bethlehem’s dynamic music education and musical activities is likely to be reinforced in years to come, with a strengthening of the community relations created by the ESNCM over previous years. The extent of that success will also depend on whether the ESNCM and other institutions can develop successful strategies to shift the audience and student distribution from the current one (85 percent of ESNCM students in Bethlehem are Christians from the towns of Bethlehem, Beit Sahour, and Beit Jala) to one which reflects more effectively the class and religious distribution of the area’s population.

In a context where the challenge of living under occupation is added to the standard challenges of running an educational establishment, music institutions in Palestine have the added responsibility of ensuring that music is not perceived as – and indeed does not become – a substitute for resistance but rather that it is used as an additional form of resistance.

Michele Cantoni has been working intermittently as a violin teacher at the ESNCM since 2004 and is currently its academic director.

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