It is the dream of many young musicians: to perform at the Proms in London alongside a world-famous star before an audience of 3,500 people and millions of television viewers.
But for 17 members of the Palestine Strings, an ensemble of youngsters mainly from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, next Thursday’s appearance at the Royal Albert Hall will be more than simply the highlight of their fledgling musical careers. It is also a chance to present a face of Palestine that is in stark contrast to the prevailing image of dusty refugee camps and stone-throwing youths.
Led by British violin virtuoso Nigel Kennedy, the group will perform Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, in an arrangement which includes some sections of Arabic music.
“We are musicians first and foremost, but we are also performing as Palestine,” said violinist Layth Hanbali, 20. “So there’s that element of trying to represent Palestinians culturally.” The young musicians, he added, were considering wearing black and white chequered keffiyehs, a symbol of Palestinian nationalism, for their 65-minute appearance.
The ensemble felt honoured to be invited to play at the Proms, said Hanbali, who was born in the West Bank city of Nablus. “It’s an amazing opportunity, and we’re all feeling nervous.”
Kennedy met and performed with the young musicians on a visit to Jerusalem last summer. “I was very moved by that performance and thought it would be wonderful to share that artistry with a larger audience,” he told the Guardian.
He was struck by the “down-to-earth but phenomenally positive attitude that the kids were displaying, and that’s reflected in their music as well. It has such deep soul, whole-hearted commitment and a value attached to every moment of music-making and life itself.”
Kennedy also hoped that the Proms appearance would help foster a fresh image of the Palestinian people. “They don’t have to be only portrayed in the way that Fox News and even CNN sometimes portray them. One concert can’t change everyone’s perception, but it’s vitally important that Palestinian people are seen in the rest of the world as creative, positive, artistic, soulful people. This group is perfectly equipped to represent their people and their culture in a positive way.”
The group – whose ages range from 12 to 23 – arrived in London on Friday and will spend the coming days in intensive rehearsals. Even though it is the first visit to the UK for most members of the ensemble, they did not expect to have time for sightseeing, said Hanbali.
Palestine Strings was formed in 2011 by the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, named after the late Palestinian intellectual and musician. More than 1,000 young Palestinian musicians study at branches in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Nablus, Bethlehem and Gaza City. Palestine Strings toured in the US last year.
“Not everyone [in Palestine] has access to the conservatory,” said Hanbali. But he hoped the Proms performance would “promote classical music in Palestinian society”.
Kennedy intends to pursue further projects with Palestine Strings, including possible performances in other European countries. “It is a chance for them to be recognised not just as a small group of string players but as human beings with fantastic sentiments and an amazing ability to communicate.”