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Syrian Orchestra Pays Homage to Ancient Civilizations | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Damascus, Asharq Al-Awsat- After his unique success in conducting the Zeryab Orchestra, following his return from Pakistan, Iraqi musician Raad Khalaf announced the launch of his new project entitled ‘Orchestra Mary’. Living and working in Syria, Khalaf’s ‘Orchestra Mary’ is expected to be a cornerstone of Syrian orchestral symphonies and one that he deems to be the first of its kind in the Middle East and the Arab world.

In the inaugural ceremony, which was held in the Opera House in Damascus, Khalaf held a press conference in which he revealed that the full ensemble was comprised of over 100 Syrian girls, of which there were 62 musicians and 39 singers, all of whom graduated from music conservatories from all over Syria. During the ceremony, the orchestra played a range of celebratory music that combined classical and romantic pieces by renowned composers, such as Handel, Mozart, Strauss and Vivaldi, among others.

Khalaf stated that through this project, his aim is to highlight the great inherent potential in women, as well as presenting musical pieces that are easy to listen to yet highly technical and largely unknown to audiences. When asked about the significance of the dominance of women in ‘Orchestra Mary’, which is nearly devoid of men, Khalaf commented, “I did not compose ‘Orchestra Mary’ to affirm women’s existence in society because it is not my aspiration to establish a social bloc or a female (political) party. The women here present a project that is the equivalent of what they have presented as their own cultural contributions. History has proven that a woman is capable of bearing what 10 men cannot bear.”

Without delving further into this naïve dualism, it must be noted that Raad Khalaf has a marked presence in the Syrian musical arena. It is the same arena in which death has claimed the majority of its most prominent musicians, while others have left the country. Renowned Syrian musician and conductor Solhi al Wadi is ailing of a critical disease, while acclaimed musicians Mohamed Abdel Karim (known as the prince of the lute), and Riyad al Bandak have passed away.

Beginning his career as a gifted violinist, Raad Khalaf then worked with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, performing a number of solo concerts. By then he had founded the Zeryab Orchestra through which he presented a number of shows that were based upon reading history through music. Performing a series of unique shows, he most recently participated in 9th World Music Festival in Lahore, Pakistan. The festival was attended by 115 musical groups hailing from 42 countries. Khalaf’s ensemble was the only Arab group to participate in this festival in the field of music and performance arts.

Through his eclectic efforts, Khalaf attempts to present an alternative music to the mainstream. His music is based on the integration of audio and visual representations of various rituals borrowed from Syria’s ancient civilizations, which include the Ebla and the Ugarit civilizations. His performances offer a reinterpretation into the rituals and hymns that represent the daily lives of the inhabitants of this region before the birth of Christ, but from an innovative perspective that is compatible with our contemporary era. In some of his shows, Khalaf uses old texts that were originally written in the 1800s. These shows were presented as acting performances in Ugarit’s Royal Palace Square, the scenography and costumes inspired by the ancient drawings and writings of these times. Content for the lyrics of the songs relied on translated poetry that was inspired by ancient inscriptions dating back to these civilizations, in addition to the use of some old musical instruments from the period.

Raad Khalaf’s shows, which are characterized by their historical, imaginary and legendary background are well received and are especially popular among the youth. His show entitled, “The Last Tale of Shahryar’s Nights in 2057” is an imaginary drama that combines singing and dancing. Over the duration of 10 days, the Opera Theater was filled with visitors, suggesting that music audiences outnumber others for all the various forms of art! Khalaf believes that the popularity of these shows, which he calls ‘family shows’, lies in their ability to combine the gravity of opera and the theatricality of musicals on the one hand, and the concept of itinerant theater on the other.

It is refreshing to hear music that evokes the ancient world while being performed in the cacophony that is globalization. This music preserves a philosophical and legendary spirit, its meanings synonymous with the meaning of life and death, love and eternity, and the temple hymns, performance dances, ritual revivals and the fertility festival, and the nether world and temple dancers.

Can this imaginary combination prevail and achieve a fixed presence in the minds of exhausted people?

It is worth noting that the Syrian Minister of Culture Riyad Nassan Agha officially announced that the ministry will act as ‘Orchestra Mary’s’ patron, establishing it as one of Syria’s main orchestras.