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Chamber music in a Damascene setting.

Byline: Raphael Thelen

Summary: When the Dutch classical singer Marcel Beekman visited Syria last week to rehearse and finally stage a classical chamber-music concert with Syrian students, he was greeted with an unexpected problem. Coming from differing cultural and educational backgrounds, Beekman and the Syrian students at first had trouble finding their footing.

DAMASCUS: When the Dutch classical singer Marcel Beekman visited Syria last week to rehearse and finally stage a classical chamber-music concert with Syrian students, he was greeted with an unexpected problem. Coming from differing cultural and educational backgrounds, Beekman and the Syrian students at first had trouble finding their footing, but through long hours of rehearsing and the strong will of all involved, they finally managed to put on a concert to remember.

Beekman, 39, visited Syria for four days. The initial days were taken up with workshops for the Syrian music students, in which they rehearsed the pieces that made up the program that was performed Saturday night.

The concert featured Baroque works by a selection of French composers and several extracts from cantatas by the famous German composer Johann Sebastian Bach.

The chosen venue was the richly decorated Al-Zeitun Church in the old city close to Bab Sharki, the east gate of the walled city center.

By featuring classical instruments like oboe, clavecin and a couple of violins, Beekman and his accompaniment managed to capture the audience in a unique atmosphere, and guide them through a world of music with which many were unfamiliar.

Alternating between slower pieces in praise of the Biblical Creation, and more upbeat ones celebrating the wonders of life, Beekman filled the church with the sacral sounds of the 17th century.

Despite this fairly high degree of musical specialization, the church was filled to the last bench by a mixed crowd of classical music aficionados and members of all religions from the surrounding quarters.

For Beekman this was not the first time he has worked in the Middle East, and he hopes to do so again.

"Last year I sung in Tehran and I hope to participate in the festivities of East Jerusalem as the Arab Capital of Culture in 2009, but the Israeli authorities are very reluctant to support this event," he said.

Beekman, who chose the Italian musician Marco Vitale to accompany him on the clavecin, added that "the cultural exchange is very important" to him. He further explained that the nature of chamber music makes communication particularly important, something he struggled with at first.

"Chamber music can't be directed by a conductor, the music develops between the musicians, the communication on stage is very important," Beekman added.

He soon learned, however, that Syrian musicians were not used to this way of cooperating.

"I experienced the students as very shy. They hardly looked at me when I spoke to them, but all on-stage communication is visual. I had to make this clear first," said Beekman.

Another problem the group faced in the days before the concert was their different educational backgrounds.

"I would describe the way the violin players here are trained as Russian, but you need a much softer approach to play baroque chamber music. So I started to translate the lyrics to them and tried to give them a feel for this kind of music," Beekman explained.

However, the Syrian musicians were not the only ones who needed to improve in terms of flexibility.

"I brought a wide selection of pieces to be able to adapt to the available instruments. I only knew at the day of my arrival who I would finally work with," he said.

"I consider myself as a musician first and then as a singer. I am not a diva, but a part of the group," continued Beekman, who has sung with the likes of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra and the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra.

The product of the hard work was highly appreciated by audience members and all those who participated.

"I'm very satisfied with the end result," added the Dutch singer. He then zipped off to catch his flight back to the Netherlands the same night, due to another engagement.

The event was organized as part of Damascus' status asAa Arab Capital of Culture for 2008 by the Netherlands Institute for Academic Studies Damascus (NIASD) with the help of the Dutch Embassy.

"The aim of the NIASD is to enhance the cooperation between Dutchmen and Syrians in the fields of science, culture and education," Astrid Rijbroek, director of the institute, told The Daily Star.

The concert was the kick-off to a series of four Dutch-organized cultural events this year, which will include an additional music event and two plays.

Given that the European background of the concert seemed at odds with the Arab nature of the festival, it was a fine example of how music can build bridges between cultures and religions.

Copyright 2008, The Daily Star. All rights reserved.

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Publication:The Daily Star (Beirut, Lebanon)
Date:Nov 19, 2008
Words:826
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