It becomes evident that something very special can happen when musicians have something more than just music to communicate. It can be hard to pin it down, but in the case of The Middle East Peace Orchestra it has something to do with the bringing together of normally opposing forces. The synthesis of languages, sounds, and cultures so frequently at odds with one another into a unique yet entirely natural performance is a truly humbling experience.
The irony is that though the forces in the Middle East may oppose politically, in terms of music they come together effortlessly. This was demonstrated best when the orchestra played ‘Terk / Påskeblomst’: a seamless medley composed of an Arab love song, a Jewish Tango and a Danish Psalm. The effect was profound, as was the message. The fact that the three cultures came together with such harmony and ease made one truly reconsider all preconceptions of their differences. When the melodies of Christian, Jewish and Arabic songs are played back to back it really does become apparent that there is more that joins them than sets them apart.
The success of The Middle East Peace Orchestra is founded not just in the concept though, but also in the virtuosity of the musicians, and their humour. The audience was perhaps a little bemused to see just five musicians step on to the stage, and begin by talking entirely in Hebrew and Arabic (they soon gave up and spoke in English). The five instruments, consisting of oboe, accordion, oud, bouzouki and darbuka (hand drum) were however deceptively powerful. The depth and subtlety of the accordion playing was such that it could fill the whole of St George’s Hall by itself. Combined with the string players and the phenomenal drumming of Lars Bo Kujahn, it was clear that five men were more than enough for an orchestra. The three languages were also quite sufficient.
The music itself was at an exciting point between tradition and innovation. The basis of most of the songs was either Jewish “Klesmer” or Middle Eastern “Makam”, but the rapid switching between styles and the integration of Western classical music created something truly unique. At one point band leader Henrik Goldschmidt announced the more local input of a Handel overture into an Arab dance, happy to disappoint the audience with the reminder that he was actually German, not English. It was not just the mixing of cultures that was adventurous however: a joyful disregard for time signatures was often exhibited, with Goldschmidt at one point commenting that the next song “will start in the time of ten, spend some time in seven, and end in three!” Even for the musically uninitiated the transition from a disorientating, irregular meter to a leisurely waltz was something to behold.
The ensemble’s founder, Goldschmidt really led from the front with not only his sharp Scandinavian-Jewish wit, but also some truly sublime oboe playing – it has been described as “the best Klezmer oboe playing in the world”. Alongside his role as principal oboist for The Royal Danish Orchestra, he decided to set up the Peace Orchestra in 2003 as a constantly evolving collaborative project. The musicians change frequently, and have hailed from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Scandinavia. “The musicians are all hand-picked virtuosos representing the best of their tradition; furthermore they all have the courage to engage in this project.” Away from the stage Goldschmidt is disarmingly shy, talking with a wonderfully broken English. He spoke of the difficulties the band face, despite their noble intentions. “We are not allowed to play in Syria, Iraq or Iran, because we sing in Hebrew.”
Clearly the world has a long way to go before this kind of project is universally accepted. It is also no empty comment that the musicians are brave to be playing this music in the name of Middle East peace. Goldschmidt did however make clear his intentions on this point. “The name should really be The Middle East Hope Orchestra, for that is all we can try for right now.” A central part of Goldschmidt’s aim involves action through education. When travelling around the Middle East he conducts musical workshops for children, introducing them to the music of other cultures and the uniting power of musical collaboration. “I always take with me this instrument,” he says, brandishing a miniature woodwind instrument. “The children call it the crying flute.” The children are not wrong, the sound of this miniature clarinet is nothing short of woeful. It is easy to see how the kind of charisma, humour and gravity this man has is put to powerful use in a troubled place. Even if he is not allowed to perform alongside his inspiring friends, it seems there is hope yet with just this one Jew and his crying flute.