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Syrian orchestra in exile

Samih Amri / eg
September 22, 2015

Syrian refugees have created a symphonic orchestra of musicians in exile in Europe. Hoping to change the image of their war-torn country, they rehearse for their opening concert in Bremen.

Bremen - "Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, Copyright: Samih Amri
Image: Samih Amri

War, death, refugees - most people now associate Syria with devastation. "We want to change this," says Raed Jazbeh determinatedly, "with our music." The young double bassist initiated the "Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra" (SEPO) a few months ago.

The orchestra will be giving its first concert in Bremen on September 22. Most of its approximately 30 musicians are Syrian refugees. They have come from all over Europe and are rehearsing together for the first time.

The opening piece is the overture to Felix Mendelssohn's singspiel "Heimkehr aus der Fremde" (Return of the Roamer). With its sad sounds, this concert piece conveys a strong longing for home. Flight and exile characterize the atmosphere of the program, but it also explores the themes of love and hope, selections ranging from classical European symphonies to lesser-known music by the contemporary Syrian composer Mayas Al Yamani.

Bremen - "Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, Copyright: Samih Amri
Raed Jazbeh has been living in Germany for two yearsImage: Samih Amri

Raed started dreaming of creating this orchestra two years ago, when he fled Syria to Germany. He corrects anyone who refers to his ensemble as a "refugee orchestra:" "We are an orchestra of exiles," he says, gently running his hand over his double bass.

The orchestra practices until late in the night. There isn't much time left until the premiere. "Even professionals usually need more than three days of group rehearsals," says Naser, a horn player who now lives in Berlin and came to play with the SEPO, the first symphonic orchestra of Syrian musicians in Europe. They are hosted by German families during the rehearsals in Bremen.

Separated in Damascus, united in Bremen

Some of these Syrians had already performed together in their home country, at the Academy of Music in Damascus. Four years ago, civil war led the young musicians to new destinies - a forced exile in Europe.

Raed found some of his former colleagues over Facebook. It took him a long time to track down the violinist Michella Kasas, who now lives in France and pursues her music studies there.

"I can hardly believe that we are reunited after so many years," says Michella. Playing with her former classmates in Bremen almost feels like a miracle for the 28-year-old musician. "It feels like we're back in Damascus when we rehearse. It's very emotional."

Bremen - "Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, Copyright: Samih Amri
'Play music with your feelings,' says conductor Martin LentzImage: S. Amri

Michella was lucky enough to be able to bring her violin to France, but the trumpeter Dolama Shabah had to leave his beloved instrument behind when he left: "I just didn't have enough space in my small backpack," he explains. It was the only piece of luggage he carried with him when he fled via Turkey, the Mediterranean Sea, Serbia and Hungary to finally reach Germany. A German offered him a used trumpet. "That gave me new hope. I've found my strength and my ambition through this orchestra," says Dolama.

Chaos meets harmony

When he heard about the SEPO a few months ago, conductor Martin Lentz did not hesitate to get involved. Enjoying working with international groups, he recently supervised a project in Ramallah with the Israeli-Argentine conductor Daniel Barenboim.

Lentz is very affectionate and understanding with the young Syrians but remains strict in rehearsals. He repeatedly stops, improves and corrects the musicians: "This must be softer, much finer," he tells the violinist in English. Then he gives the cues and nods his head. Fingertips roll on a Mideastern darbuka drum while bows are drawn on violins: The musicians gradually create a balanced, fresh rhythm together. Yet combining Arab and Western music on the same concert program is not an easy task.

Bremen - "Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra, Copyright: Samih Amri
A musical statement with drums, trumpets and stringsImage: Samih Amri

Strange sounds keep popping up. Lentz interrupts once again. The musicians are nervous and insecure: Their performance is tomorrow.

They look up to their conductor for advice, and he tries to encourage them: "You don't need to play as perfectly as the Berlin Philharmonic! Just play with your feelings." Then he raises his hand and gives the cues: The rehearsal continues. There is no more time to lose before the opening concert.

The concert at the Radio Bremen broadcasting hall is sold out. Further concerts are planned: The next one will be on October 3 in Hitzacker.