As the UK summer season of concerts and music camps draws to an end, I find myself reflecting on several recent events that have given me both inspiration and food for thought.
A rainy Sunday evening in Cardiff a couple of weeks ago was redeemed for me by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales' final summer concert before embarking on their tour of Germany. Who wouldn't feel inspired, with 115 young people - the youngest just 14 - playing their hearts out for an enthusiastic audience of family, friends and music-lovers? Similarly, last Sunday evening my heart was warmed by the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, on stage at the Royal Albert Hall for a fantastic performance of Beethoven's 9th Symphony, celebrating the bicentenary of the work's commissioner, the UK's inspirational Royal Philharmonic Society. And a couple of days before that, I sat with a 6,000-strong audience at a late-night prom (till way past my bed-time) to wonder at Nigel Kennedy leading his Orchestra of Life alongside seventeen members of the Palestine Strings through the most remarkable performance of Vivaldi's Four Seasons any of us had ever heard.
Ranging in age from 12 to 23 and hailing from the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music (ESNCM), the young Palestinians' contribution included improvisation rooted in their own Arabic tradition, both vocal and instrumental, which enriched the Vivaldi we know and love. Joy, passion and talent in abundance were the common denominators between the three concerts; but how different the starting points for the young musicians involved, and how different the conditions of their everyday lives as they pursue their passion.
It's truly wonderful how since the 1990s a significant number of music schools have been created in the Palestinian Territories. The ESNCM itself has branches in Ramallah, Jerusalem, Nablus, Bethlehem and Gaza City; the Al Kamandjati Association runs a network of music centres in Palestine, with teachers also making weekly visits to a number of refugee camps; and the Barenboim-Said Foundation has a school in Ramallah. Yet in spite of these efforts and the great support that these institutions have from within Palestinian society, there is still a huge challenge in delivering musical education to children in the Palestinian Territories. Limitations on financial resources mean that teachers' salaries are low, instruments are often of poor quality, and teaching resources can be basic - and it's also difficult for foreign teachers to get visas to work there. So the concerts of the last few weeks have focussed my thoughts around gratitude for the rich ecology of music provision for young people in the UK - yes, in spite of the fact we all know it really could be better - and have also brought to mind another event that made a deep impression earlier in the summer.
I arrived at Kings Place late one afternoon to catch the end of rehearsals for a very special concert given by five young Palestinian teenagers, recipients of the British Council/Choir of London's music bursaries. Over three years, these bursaries are enabling young students aged between 14 and 18 to travel to the UK for a week's music-making with young British musicians at summer music camps followed by a tailor-made week of tuition, concert-going and concert-giving in London. Flautist Hadeel Sabat and 18-year-old pianist Khoulud Sabbara are from Jerusalem; Faris Amin and Layan Nijem, 15 and 14 years old, from Ramallah; and 14-year-old violinist Rady Doulani from the West Bank. During their week in London they had enjoyed one-to-one tuition on their respective instruments and, when I arrived, they were rehearsing chamber music for their final concert with members of the Choir of London in front of an invited audience that evening - a concert which also included spontaneous Arabic improvisation!
I first came across the Choir of London five years ago at an event to raise awareness for the National Youth Orchestra of Iraq. Talking to Andrew Staples, one of the UK's most talented young tenors and one of the Choir of London's trustees, and John Harte, now Chief Executive of Aurora Orchestra and one of the co-founders of the Choir of London, I heard how the organisation was originally formed in 2004 to give professional musicians a chance to contribute their skills to charitable work in music, with an emphasis on increasing opportunities for people whose access to music would otherwise be limited. It's an impressive organisation. Having already toured four times to the Middle East delivering both performances (including productions of La Bohème and the Magic Flute) and a rich education programme, its members have first-hand experience of the Palestinian territories and are still managing to find time and energy on top of busy professional lives to support initiatives such as the current bursary scheme, supported by the British Council. Project manager Alice Howick organises and delivers the programme of activities for the students, from accompanying them personally over the bridge to Amman to the return flight home. An Arabic-speaker, she taught at Al Kamandjati's music school in Ramallah, and was instrumental in setting up an affiliated school in Lebanon. Her commitment to her young charges before the Kings Place concert was evident as she coaxed, reassured, encouraged and galvanised them during the rehearsal towards the successful culmination of two remarkable weeks in the UK.
So what about the young bursary students? What did they take home with them? Inspiration, new friendships, insight into another country and its culture and an understanding of the commitment and work ethic required to make it as a professional musician - and that's just scratching the surface. For one recipient, the visit was a life-changing experience. For another, it helped her make the decision to devote her life to music. And what did they leave behind? Inspiration, new friendships, insights into another country and its culture - and memories of the shared joy and passion in making music. Long may it continue.