It was natural that the main focus of the Choir of London’s first visit to the Middle East should be the Palestinian Territories, for it was here that it was felt a contribution could most usefully be made. The catastrophic effects of military occupation – severe restrictions on access, a crushed economy, and a climate of violence and fear – have taken a heavy toll on ordinary Palestinians. 

Music, inevitably, has been one of the unsung casualties. Palestinian musicians face a barrage of basic obstacles: the difficulty of travelling to lessons, of managing to collect performers together for rehearsals, of finding funds for instruments, of summoning the courage to continue when the prospects for the future often seem impossibly bleak.

Despite these hurdles, a number of organisations are working hard to ensure that music continues to flourish against the odds in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Chief amongst these is the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music. The Conservatory runs courses and offers individual tuition to young musicians throughout the Palestinian territories, and also manages to stage regular concert series of very high quality. 

International assistance is vital to the Conservatory’s work, since funds and teachers are limited. The Choir of London’s project incorporated a major collaboration with the Conservatory and its students in the shape of a Palestine Bach Festival – an event staged over three days in Jerusalem, Ramallah and Bethlehem, and supported by the United Nations Development Programme, the French Cultural Centre, and the Goethe Institute. 

The Festival included a series of workshops and masterclasses designed to benefit Palestinian student musicians of all ages and backgrounds. It also provided a framework within which Palestinian musicians could take to the stage alongside British musicians for major joint performances in Ramallah and Bethlehem of sections of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio.

Another Palestinian partner in the Palestine Bach Festival was the Jerusalem Chorus. Founded in 1955 in Jerusalem, this Palestinian choir has established a distinguished reputation throughout the West Bank, singing a wide spectrum of repertoire in Arabic and a variety of European languages. In recent years the 35-strong choir has been forced to relocate to Ramallah because of the difficulties many of its members face in travelling to Jerusalem: the Choir of London’s visit provided its members with their first opportunity in over fifteen years to engage professionally with a visiting group of international artists.

The interaction between visiting and local musicians during the Festival was quite unforgettable. A number of highlights stand out: the Choir of London’s first introduction to Arabic folksongs during a workshop in Ramallah; a wonderful masterclass – led by a trio of visiting string players – for a group of young Palestinian instrumentalists; the warm reaction which greeted the Jerusalem Chorus as they finally arrived on stage in Bethlehem after a courageous three-hour journey through several military checkpoints. 

The Bach Festival concerts themselves were musically rewarding, particularly given the very limited rehearsal time available. And the response from local audiences was breathtaking: each of the venues was sold out, with over 700 in attendance in Ramallah and more than 400 watching in Bethlehem. 

Palestine Bach Festival 2004

Palestine Music Festivals

Monday 20 December, 5pm

Tuesday 21 December, 7.30pm

Thursday 23 December, 10am

Thursday 23 December, 11.30am

Thursday 23 December, 6pm

Friday 24 December, 1pm

Friday 24 December, 9pm

Friday 24 December, 11pm

Saturday 25 December, 6pm

Concert, Lutheran Church of the Redeemer, Jerusalem

Concert, Ramallah Cultural Palace (with the Jerusalem Chorus)

Choral and instrumental workshops and masterclasses

Concert, St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem

Concert, International Centre of Bethlehem (with Jerusalem Chorus)

Concert, St. Anne’s Church, Jerusalem

Christmas Carol Service, Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Midnight Mass, St. George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem

Choral evensong, St George’s Cathedral, Jerusalem

The Choir of London staged its first international project in December 2004: a series of workshops, masterclasses and concerts throughout the Palestinian Territories, as well as contributing to the Christmas celebrations. To see photographs of the tour, please click here.

Copyright © 2012 Choir of London. All rights reserved.

The Choir of London Trust is a UK Registered Charity no. 1112757.

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