“A Syrian Encounter” concert celebrates a city and a band surviving civil war

Culture Events Music

Victoria Guitar Society curates night of song, stories, and more

Photo via UVic Photo Services

Some music fans, particularly in progressive cities such as Victoria, have been known to have an apprehensive attitude toward “classical music.” We’ve all heard the same critiques — it’s “dull,” “boring,” or belongs in an elevator, or on a telephone’s “hold” function.

Oct. 18 at the Alix Goolden Hall showcased a different side of classical music. For one thing, it featured the unusual ensemble of a guitar quartet. More importantly, the group in question was the Orontes Guitar Quartet — four brave young men sharing a message of peace and kinship through art in divisive times.

Orontes, named for the river that flows through their home country, began their journey in 2012 as students at the Higher Institute of Music in Damascus, Syria — which is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, with 11 000 years of history. As they gathered steam in their performance career, playing at the Damascus Opera House and with the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra, increased tension from the Syrian Civil War such as bombs, snipers, and raids on artists’ houses by the Islamic State (ISIS) forced the quartet and their spouses to flee their homeland.

Finding temporary refuge in Lebanon, they eventually escaped to North America through a fellowship from the Artist Protection Fund, with American guitarist Susan MacDonald’s assistance and mentorship, becoming the first group of musicians to be given assistance. However, right before they were due to leave for the United States, President Trump’s administration imposed a travel ban on several countries in the Middle East, including Syria.

The operation was salvaged at the last minute when MacDonald contacted Alexander Dunn at the UVic School of Music, who brought the musicians to Victoria where they have resided since. “A Syrian Encounter” was arranged by the Victoria Guitar Society to celebrate the anniversary of the fellowship’s inception and the incredible journey the quartet has undertaken.

When the lights dimmed, Dunn walked on stage to address the audience.

“I am delighted to be standing here tonight to share an event that was three years in the making, filled with expectancy, unanticipated disruptions and sundry twists and turns,” he began. “As trauma and violence have been an everyday experience for many around the world, we are fortunate to dwell in this beautiful city. It has been a privilege to extend our hearts and hands to welcome this group to Canada and to share a bonding experience with their music.”

The night was full of beautiful music, poetry, and prose. It began with MacDonald translating for Syrian-Canadian activist and ḥakawātī (a practitioner of the ancient tradition of Arabic storytelling) Masa Kateb, who read four poems by Nizar Qabbani, a Syrian poet who devoted his works to the city of Damascus.

Oudist Douglas Hensley accompanied the readings and provided an appropriate atmosphere. Afterward, Kateb spoke on her own, telling the story of the scarf she was wearing — a thank-you gift she received in the Old City of Damascus. Today, the scarf is Kateb’s connection to everything she loves about her city.

The first guitar music to come to the stage was the duo of Gabriel Al-Botros and Orwa Al-Shara’a, who performed a dance from Manuel de Falla’s La vida breve. The second half of the Orontes quartet, Mohammed Mir Mahmoud and Nazir Salameh, joined them afterward, where they played Nebulae, a fast-paced, florid piece by Olga Amelkina-Vera. Closing out the first half of the evening was William Kanengeiser’s excellent arrangement of selections from Carmen, the famous opera of Georges Bizet. It was here that the quartet showed their ability to work as a unit and create complex textures on a near-orchestral scale.

When things resumed, author and UVic professor Deborah Campbell read an excerpt of A Disappearance in Damascus, an account of her time as a foreign correspondent in Syria during its Iraqi refugee crisis. Campbell spoke to the Martlet in retrospect about how she felt the event was a refreshing approach to Canadian commentary on Syria’s situation.

“[Dr. Dunn] let me know that it was a celebration of Damascus, and I was delighted,” said Campbell. “So often, when I’m discussing my book, I’m talking about war, and I don’t get a chance to talk about this city of peace, pluralism, this crossroads of civilisations … It was a room full of community and generosity, and I think everyone in that room could walk through the door of language and music, and see [Damascus] as though they were there.”

The guitarists took up the rest of the evening, including a piece written by MacDonald called Gifts From Damascus. To preface it, MacDonald told stories of some of the Orontes’ classmates who remained in Syria. Next up was another duo, this time Mir Mahmoud and Salameh, who played Andrew York’s Sanzen-in. When Al-Botros and Al-Shara’a returned, they played Máximo Diego Pujol’s Grises y Soles, and were finally joined by Celso Machado, a Brazilian guitarist and percussionist living in Gibsons, B.C. Machado’s warm disposition and desire to share music and friendship with everyone around him was infectious as he accompanied the quartet on percussion for his own piece, Dancas populaires Brasileiras. By the end of the piece, Machado had the quartet playing percussion themselves, was bouncing around the stage, orchestrating clapped rhythms from the audience, and had everyone laughing and shedding away the uptight atmosphere of such a traditional venue as the Alix Goolden. All five musicians returned for a lighthearted encore of Chet Atkins’s “Blue Ocean Echo.”

The evening left all in attendance with a warm glow and a refreshed perspective on a country that Canadian media portrays as in a cultural ruin. The Orontes Guitar Quartet is surviving proof that young people of Middle East countries such as Syria are as involved (if not more so) in arts and culture as Canadian youth, and share a beautiful zest for life despite their unimaginable hardships. They are slowly planting new roots in Canada now that their fellowship is complete, but this author wishes for them that they will one day be able to return to the peaceful and vibrant Damascus they know and love.