Jordan orchestra gets new lease on life

Friday 01/05/2015
After tough times, they’re back again

Amman - Jordan’s national orchestra is getting a facelift. A Jor­danian business tycoon has taken the challenge to turn the once-defunct group into a celebrated world-class ensemble.
In 2014, Talal Abu Ghazaleh was approached by Jordan’s Queen Noor, the American-born widow of Jordan’s King Abdullah II’s father, to revive the group that had been dismantled two years earlier be­cause of the lack of funding.
“It was an honour to receive the queen’s request; I could not accept the idea of having a country with­out an orchestra,” Abu Ghazaleh told The Arab Weekly.
“So we sat, planned, studied and implemented a new strategy,” Abu Ghazaleh said. He explained his planning and vast network of con­tacts saw foreign embassies and more private local firms actively engaged in assisting the orchestra through sponsorships of its events or training its local talent.
“We’re happy with the results,” he said. “So far, we had five suc­cessful full-house concerts” hosted by JOrchestra, formerly known as the Amman Symphony Orchestra (ASO).
ASO suffered under a tight gov­ernment budget and insufficient sponsorship, which led to an ac­cumulation of debt and then its inability to even pay its musicians. The orchestra was forced to close in 2012, five years after its incep­tion.
At the time, companies were leery of financing concerts for groups less popular than the lead­ing Middle Eastern bands.
“We endured tough times, but it’s over and I’m happy we’re back again,” said violinist Mohammed Sleem, recalling the time when ASO withered.
“We were devastated, confused and lost,” Sleem told The Arab Weekly.
In many parts of the Arab world, local orchestras have been often neglected as young people turned to the dominant rap and Arabic pop. The situation was different in Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab states where musicians were drawn, early on, to classical music experiences in the West.
Beside the JOrchestra, there are a number of home-grown institu­tions in Arab countries, such as the youth orchestra of Algeria, the Cairo Opera House, the Beirut Na­tional Conservatory and the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra.
JOrchestra has 60 young and veteran musicians — all Jordani­ans — under the supervision of the National Music Conservatory, an institution under Queen Noor’s pa­tronage. Jordan’s royal family has often given special attention to lo­cal musical groups, partly to culti­vate culture at home and boost its image abroad.
Between 2007 and 2012, Jordan’s national orchestra played 62 con­certs. In 2011, it had 11 concerts but went out of business the following year, its resident conductor Mo­hammed Uthman Sidiq told The Arab Weekly.
Also before its closing, the local orchestra hosted several visiting conductors, including Briton Nich­olas Collon, Spaniard Josep Vicent and Dutch Jules van Hessen and Lucas Vis. Additionally, soloists from Egypt, Japan, Syria and Brit­ain also performed in Jordan.
Now, JOrchestra hopes it can build on earlier achievements to achieve sustainability.
“We are happy and satisfied with how things are organised now. Foreign embassies are cooperating with us by hosting foreign conduc­tors and musicians, new ideas are being developed that are attracting a new generation of classical mu­sic lovers and all this can be trans­formed into sustainability,” said Sidiq, its conductor.
“We are also contacting other orchestras to play joint concerts, such as the Romanians, Bulgarians and several others in the region. In other words, we are seeking global recognition,” he added.
Abu Ghazaleh, 76, the Jorda­nian tycoon who is sponsoring the JOrchestra, is known for his pas­sion for classical music. Abu Ghaz­aleh has previously helped the Freunde der Salzburger Festspâele, Lebanese National Symphony Or­chestra, Association pour le Ray­onnement de l’Opéra de Paris and others.
In the interview, he stressed that music brings various cultures closer. Although he said he knew the orchestra business in the Arab world is as expensive as abroad, Abu Ghazaleh said he “could not let the financial crisis take control.
“We want to tell the world that Arabs have the right talent to play world-class music and nothing can stop them,” he said.