Can music create a connection that years of politics and diplomacy have failed to build?
Faculty and students at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music think that music can build such a bridge. So they are hosting a weeklong series of concerts, classes and discussions from Dec. 2-8 that will feature Arab and Jewish composers, performers and scholars.
Among the highlights of the program, titled "Listening to the Other: Mideast Musical Dialogues," are the world premiere of a chamber work by UCLA professor of composition and music theory David Lefkowitz, a discussion about musical collaborations in the Middle East and the West Coast premieres of two pieces by acclaimed young Arab American composer Mohammed Fairouz.
"The process of making music together — the cooperation, the listening, the perfecting — sensitizes participants to the experience of dialogue and cooperation, in the service of creating a result that couldn’t be accomplished individually," said Neal Stulberg, music director of the UCLA Philharmonia orchestra, who organized the event with his colleague Neal Brostoff, a Los Angeles-based Jewish music scholar who will be a lecturer at the UCLA Herb Alpert School of Music during winter quarter.
The idea for "Listening to the Other" took root in early 2012 when Brostoff first heard Fairouz’s Symphony No.3 ("Poems and Prayers"), which interweaves the Jewish sacred text of the Kaddish and contemporary poetry by Middle Eastern poets Yehuda Amichai, Mahmoud Darwish and Fadwa Tuqan. Brostoff soon introduced Fairouz’s music to Stulberg.
"It was so exciting to run across an Arab American artist who shared these interests and commitments," said Stulberg, who took a year off as an undergraduate to study in Israel and became interested in its politics. For the last 18 months, Stulberg and Brostoff have been organizing the weeklong program, which culminates Sunday, December 8 with a concert featuring the West Coast premiere of "Poems and Prayers."
Approximately 300 student musicians from the Philharmonia, University Chorale and UCLA University Chorus will join esteemed professional soloists Sasha Cooke, David Krakauer, David Kravitz and Ashley Faatoalia on stage at Royce Hall to perform Fairouz’s symphony. A commercial recording will be released next spring on the Sono Luminus label.
"Music is the most powerful tool in promoting peace among people," Fairouz said. "The voice is the only universal instrument that is shared by all cultures all over the world. When we make a statement that is as vocal as this — literally and figuratively — we are drowning out the voices of cynicism and the naysayers to peace and harmony."
UCLA’s Lefkowitz, who was commissioned to write a new piece for "Listening to the Other," said that although he has experience with composing music that fuses different ethnic styles, writing a piece with the specific aim of transnational reconciliation was an exciting challenge. The result was "On the Pain of Separation," which unites different cultures through the universality of sorrow. It will premiere on Thursday, December 5 at Schoenberg Hall.
"The Jewish people have suffered terrible loss and separation throughout their history, particularly in the last 75 years," Lefkowitz said. "But the Palestinians have as well — and again, in the last 75 years. To understand that universality of loss, one must open up one’s heart and listen."
To do that, Lefkowitz features two instruments he’d never written for before — the oud (a traditional Middle Eastern instrument similar to a lute) and the ney (similar to a flute).
At the start of "On the Pain of Separation," the oud exhorts the other players to listen to the sorrowful tune of the ney, Lefkowitz said. "No sooner does the ney begin, however, than all of the other instruments start ‘speaking’ of their own sorrow, leading to a massive group outpouring of mournful music."
On Wednesday, December 4, there will be a public forum at the UCLA Hammer Museum featuring Fairouz; UC Berkeley ethnomusicology professor Benjamin Brinner; Thaer Bader, an alumnus of the Arab-Jewish Youth orchestra in Jerusalem; and Israeli composer Betty Olivero sharing their knowledge and experiences of Arab-Jewish musical collaborations.
Throughout her career as a composer, Olivero has taken ancient Jewish and other examples of early folk music and reimagined them in contemporary styles and modern orchestrations, often melding sounds from different cultures — something that’s been done for centuries, she noted. Some of the prayers that have been sung in synagogues are set to Arabic melodies, Olivero said. "It works absolutely fine because the music is pure."
Brinner’s 2009 book, "Playing Across a Divide: Israeli-Palestinian Musical Encounters," looks at how Jews and Arabs have collaborated musically in late-20th-century Israel at the height of the intifada, and how that changed relationships in the region.
"Creating, performing and enjoying a shared means of musical expression is one way of humanizing people one usually sees only through the stereotype of enemy or, at least, radically different," Brinner said.
The Royce Hall concert will also feature Fairouz’s 2011 clarinet concerto, "Tahrir," with clarinetist and 2013-14 UCLA Regents’ Lecturer David Krakauer, and the North American premiere of Russian Jewish composer Alexander Krein’s 1922 cantata "Kaddish," which, like Fairouz’s Symphony No. 3, uses the sacred Jewish text.
"I thought it was an interesting counterpoint to present two composers, widely separated by time and geographical space, who used the same texts in their works," said Stulberg. Both composers are examples of artists who deal with difficult spiritual issues in their music, but who recognize that music can ultimately be a language of peace, he said.
Krakauer, Olivero and Fairouz will also lead master classes during the week. "One of the main goals is to expose large numbers of our students to the idea that music can play a role in promoting transnational dialogue," Stulberg said.
"Our project is a celebration of the potential that exists in sowing the seeds of peace, and our joy in working towards cross-cultural reconciliation in a part of the world where mutual suspicions might outweigh optimism more than anywhere else," Brostoff said. "If attendees share even a fraction of our optimism — and if they commit themselves to working toward peace — our goals will have been accomplished."
For the full schedule of events and information for the ticketed events go to listeningtotheother.org. Both concerts at Schoenberg Hall and the discussion at the Hammer are free and open to the public.