By Len Lear
Normally you would have to travel many thousands of miles to hear world-class musicians performing on instruments like an oud, a short-neck lute-type, pear-shaped stringed instrument with 11 or 13 strings, or a kanun, a type of large zither (string instrument) with a thin trapezoidal soundboard that is famous for its unique melodramatic sound. Both are relatively common in the Middle East and Mediterranean region but are rarely seen in the U.S.
However, you can see and hear some of the world’s greatest practitioners of these and more traditional Western instruments in concert for one night only at Chestnut Hill’s Episcopal Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on Saturday, May 13, 7 p.m. The concert will feature the new composition of Palestinian cellist, Naseem Alatrash, “Bright Colors on a Dark Canvas,” and all proceeds will go to the Refugee Resettlement Ministry at the church.
“We are thrilled that these highly-acclaimed musicians are volunteering to bring the Philadelphia community together to provide financial support for refugees and spiritual inspiration for us all,” said Rick Josiassen, the church member who has assembled the ensemble for this event. “This is a crucial time for us all to acknowledge our deep connections around the world.”
“The St. Martin’s based refugee resettlement effort began in response to the world-wide refugee crises,” added The Rev. Jarrett Kerbel, Rector of St. Martin’s. “There are now over 40 volunteers” from the church itself and other community members who provide translation, clothing, housing, transportation and schooling partnership with a Syrian family.
Four-time Grammy winner cellist Eugene Friesen is bringing four internationally renowned Middle Eastern musicians to St. Martin’s for this unique concert. The collaboration between Friesen and Alatrash includes Jordanian-Iraqi violinist Layth Sidiq, Syrian oudist Kenan Idnawi, Palestinian kanunist Tony Barhoum and award-winning pianist Joel A. Martin. The Chestnut Hill church has partnered with nearby St. Paul’s Episcopal and New Covenant Church in its support of a Syrian refugee family.
Alatrash, a soloist, recording musician, chamber musician and teacher, has been featured at France’s Nancy Jazz Festival, Lebanon’s Beiteddine Festival, the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., London’s Royal Albert Hall and at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Twice named “string player of the year” at the Palestinian National Music Competition, he is a voice for Palestinian culture and an advocate of its music.
In a recent interview with a member of St. Martin’s Refugee Resettlement Ministry, Alatrash said, “We live in a world that is facing a major refugee crisis at the moment. Syrian, Afghani and Somali refugees are being forced to leave their homes, seeking shelter in neighboring Arab countries, Europe, the U.S. and Canada due to war and other social and political reasons.
“Many refugees face discrimination and are not allowed to join the workforce. Refugees usually have to travel by sea or land, taking unusually difficult routes and relying on smugglers. Sometimes families have to be separated for long periods of time. As a Palestinian, I am also familiar with what it means to lose your home and everything you own.
“There are more than 6.5 million Palestinian refugees around the world still carrying the keys to their homes since 1948 in hope of return. When you lose your home, you carry with you the good memories, the music and the culture as the source of identity everywhere you go. This musical work is a reflection of the shared humanity that we have with those refugees.”
Alatrash explained that for war refugees, the simplest daily events that the rest of us take for granted disappear from their lives in the blink of an eye, such as “dropping your children off at school everyday. Or an elder walking by the neighborhood bakery and smelling the freshly baked bread. Or sitting at table for dinner with your family.
“Everything that means something to you just vanished, and you find yourself taking a trip to a mysterious future. You leave everything you ever loved, and sometimes even your loved ones, behind in order to survive. Your achievements, previous education, future goals, social standing and dreams mean nothing to the world anymore.”
In an interview with the Local last week, Alatrash, 25, who grew up in a town called Beit Sahour in the Bethlehem area of the West Bank/Palestine, told us that he listened mostly to Arabic music growing up but that he auditioned on the West Bank for the Berklee Conservatory of Music in Boston. He then began studying in Germany, where education is free.
Ten months later, however, he got an email from Berklee stating that he had been given a full scholarship covering tuition, room and board. “It said that from thousands of applications, only seven people got that scholarship, five Americans and two internationals. I could not believe it! It was a no brainer, so I left Germany to go to Berklee.”
Alatrash explained that the inspiration behind his composition, “Bright Colors on a Dark Canvas,” is “all of the violence that’s going on in he world and the unfairness. I wanted give a human image to victims of war who are usually the innocent civilians and show the humanity we share with them. Often we hear about the numbers of people killed or injured in an attack, and we forget that each one of these people is a unique individual with a story.
“‘Bright Colors on a Dark Canvas’ uses music and art to tell this story. I wanted to tell the story of Palestinian refugees and Syria refugees with my art and music. I wanted to incorporate all my musical influences in one work, which became this suite including Middle Eastern music, Jazz and classical music and feature the cello as a voice in a very unique way that was never done before.”
The Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields is located at 8000 St. Martin’s Lane. Tickets may be purchased at StMartinEC.org or 215-247-7466. A reception following the concert will be organized by Chef Michele Haines from Spring Mill Cafe in Conshohocken.