Classical music attracting wider audiences in Tunisia

During the past few years, concerts of the Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra became much-anticipated events.
Sunday 16/02/2020
Members of the Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra perform at the Opera Theatre in Tunis. 		  (Tunisian Ministry of Culture)
Members of the Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra perform at the Opera Theatre in Tunis. (Tunisian Ministry of Culture)

TUNIS - A long queue of music lovers gathered outside the Opera Theatre in Tunis waiting impatiently for the doors to open. Inside, the theatre plunged into silence before musicians of the Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra started playing, enchanting the audience in a 2-hour concert that featured classical music and renditions of modern pieces.

During the past few years, concerts of the Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra have become much-anticipated events, attracting audiences of all ages. Founded in 1969, the orchestra boasts a rich history, having featured renowned Tunisian musicians and performed on international stages.

Today, the national orchestra has been restructured and integrated into the Music and Opera Pole, a newly founded department that includes the Tunisian Choir and the Tunisian Music Orchestra.

The Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra has been treating Tunisian audiences to rich and diverse programmes twice a month, featuring international musicians, including renowned Venezuelan violinist Alexis Cardenas and his quartet.

The group also presented symphonic renditions of film soundtracks that gained both critical and popular acclaim.

Music and Opera Pole Director Hichem Amari stressed the musical, cultural and educational role of the symphonic orchestra.

“One of the concerts we played this year was dedicated to baroque music. People are familiar with the genre but don’t know it is baroque. The orchestra’s programme is designed to help reinforce musical education,” Amari said.

He said the orchestra seeks to appeal to the audience by combining various genres, including popular contemporary compositions.

“An orchestra does not exist without its audience, which it needs to get closer to, but this should not lower the quality of the shows,” Amari said. “We don’t aim to sell concerts but we want to gain an audience that will remain faithful. That is why we also try to incorporate masterpieces of film soundtracks.”

Violinist Rim Belhedi said the audience has been growing larger as Tunisians have shown more interest in learning instruments.

“Since its foundation, the Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra has a loyal audience that has increased notably in recent years. One reason for that is the establishment of more music schools and because more families are encouraging their children to learn instruments,” Belhedi said.

“This is a new thing and, as a result, more families have a tradition of taking their children to concerts of classical music. This affected the type of the audience in a positive way.”

An Academy for Symphonic Music, under the department of Opera and Music, was founded in 2019 to offer professional training for budding musicians and to involve them in concerts.

“The academy seeks to train musicians of all ages to become members of the orchestra by organising classes, concerts and involving them in the orchestra’s shows. The academy had its first show last year, which was also open to different disciplines, including dance and theatre along with classical music,” Amari said.

Academy student Meriem Jeddou, 19, stressed the importance of academic learning for young musicians.

“It helped me grow as a violinist. It familiarised me with teamwork and gave me the chance to meet incredibly nice and talented musicians. Being part of an orchestra is not as easy as it seems to be,” Jeddou said.

She added: “I think classical music is pretty popular in Tunisia. In fact, most of our concerts are sold out. More and more people in Tunisia are getting familiarised with the magic of classical music, especially young people.”

The Tunisian Symphonic Orchestra, however, lacks woodwind musicians.

“One of the challenges that the orchestra faces is the lack of wind instruments, which makes it difficult to play certain symphonies but, when it comes to Arabic and Tunisian genres, we have high-level musicians,” Amari said.

Belhedi also noted the orchestra’s shortage of trainers and woodwind musicians.

“We don’t have teachers. When musicians take on the role of teacher, it does not leave them much time for practising,” she said. “I think we should re-examine and reconsider the educational system, which does not allow children to explore their musical talents.”

Amari said he hopes to attract more musicians and instruments to enrich the orchestra with more concerts planned for the rest of the year.

“I will feel I would accomplish my job as a director the day we manage to have musicians who are permanent members and teachers to train young musicians of Tunisia. This is important for the survival of the orchestra in terms of quality and sustainability,” Amari said.