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Palestine at the Proms

Nigel Kennedy and the Palestine Strings perform Vivaldi's "The Four Seasons" at the Royal Albert Hall, London on August 8, 2013. (Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
Nigel Kennedy and the Palestine Strings perform Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” at the Royal Albert Hall, London on August 8, 2013. (Chris Christodoulou/BBC)
World-renowned violinist Nigel Kennedy is as well known for his eccentric performances, shiny suits and spikey hair as he is for his musical excellence. True to form, Kennedy and his accompanying orchestra lit up London’s Royal Albert Hall last Thursday evening with an energetic and original rendition of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. And while it was played for the most British of institutions—the BBC Proms—it was the Middle Eastern element that took center stage.

Kennedy, who on the night was accompanied by his Orchestra of Life and young members of the Palestine Strings, first recorded the classical-chart-topping The Four Seasons with the English Chamber Orchestra in 1989 and later released a second recording in 2003 accompanied by members of the Berlin Philharmonic. It is likely due to his familiarity with the movements that Kennedy was able to so seamlessly inject new character into this most recent rendition without compromising the integrity of the original score.

This time, his accompanying orchestra were made up of Palestinian music students aged twelve to twenty-three. The Palestine Strings are pupils at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music, Palestine’s largest music school. Branches of the conservatory are scattered throughout towns in the West Bank and in Gaza. The students are taught both classical Western and Arab music, allowing them to achieve the incredible blend of styles showcased at the Royal Albert Hall.

The seventeen Palestinian students flown to London took to the stage with the iconic black-and-white keffiya draped over their shoulders, stringing together piercing performances that reverberated across the packed hall. A haunting vocal solo alluded to the pain felt not just by Palestinians, but by so many in the Middle East today, fusing beautifully with the Western classic. The Palestine Strings gave The Four Seasons a fresh relevance and a new and empowered lease of life.

Kennedy’s passion for jazz also infused the performance, which was entwined with interludes of swing. His stated aim is to invigorate and re-energize classical music for new audiences and give classical connoisseurs “new things to enjoy.” That, he certainly achieved.

The crescendo of the night was reserved for the moment when a member of the Palestine Strings stood for a violin solo. As the mixture of Baroque and Middle Eastern sounds rang though the Royal Albert Hall the Arab injection struck a chord, particularly with the Middle East enthusiasts in the audience. The medley was heavily imbued with sadness.

We were reminded on the night that Kennedy’s decision to align himself with the Palestine Strings may be perceived as controversial. He took a brief moment to acknowledge the unfortunate situation in Palestine, calling it “apartheid.” His statements were met with a heckle from one audience member.

While the music helped to reaffirm that in all cultures beauty and talent resonates throughout no matter your political preferences, the heckler was a reminder that it is the intolerant few that struggle to fully appreciate the diverse world we inhabit together.

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Amy Assad
Amy Assad is an editor at The Majalla and an English–Syrian, London-based writer who specializes in the arts and culture of the Middle East. She received her BA in Arabic and Middle Eastern Studies from Leeds University and has lived and studied in Syria and Morocco.

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