Arab-Jewish Ensemble Promotes Peace at Armstrong Auditorium

By Sharalee Fraser

EDMOND :: PHILADELPHIA CHURCH OF GOD—Armstrong Auditorium hosted a “program of peace” on April 12 with the Arab-Jewish ensemble Shesh Besh. The group includes three members of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra and four outstanding Israeli Arab musicians: Yael Barolsky (violin), Yossi Arnheim (flute), Peter Marck (double bass), Sami Khashiboun (Eastern violin), Alfred Hajjar (nay), Ramsis Kasis (oud), and Bishara Naddaf (deff, darbuka).

Under the auspices of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, Shesh Besh fuses elements from both Western and Arab music, reflecting the multicultural nature of its members. The ensemble’s name “Shesh Besh,” is the Hebrew name for the game of backgammon—which double bass player Peter Marck says represents the group: the two colors of the game representing their two peoples and its gameplay representing their relationship.

Approximately 220 Herbert W. Armstrong College students, Imperial Academy students, PCG members and members of the community attended the free educational performance.

The morning’s program began with Shibolet Ba’sade (“Wheat in the Field”), featuring first a Western-tuned violin, flute and double-bass at first, then the Eastern instruments, including the Eastern-tuned violin, Eastern flute (nay), percussion and other Eastern instruments.

The group played an Israeli folk song, a Bach violin Partita and “Variations on a Palestinian folk song,” an original composition by Eastern violinist Sami Khashiboun. Marck explained that each song was intended to contrast the beauty of the two musical styles; classical Western and classical Eastern.

Members of the ensemble explained that Western music is typically structured with different parts written out for different instruments, while Eastern music consists of one melody and incorporates a good deal of improvisation. Percussionist Bishara Naddaf said that he never has sheet music, and that he adjusts his playing to the “warmth” of the audience. When asked about his audience for the day, he smiled and gave a thumbs-up.

“The combination of the Western and Eastern music was presented in a way that we were able to get a flavor of the West, and yet see different and creative aspects of the East,” PCG member Paula Powell said.

The group also played a piece by an Egyptian composer and two pieces to represent harmony and conflict. The harmony piece is recognized and claimed by both Jews and Arabs as part of their respective cultures. The conflict piece, a Palestinian wedding music medley, served to acknowledge the conflict between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.

The musicians said they agree to disagree on politics, but the ensemble’s onstage presence and repertoire are a living metaphor for people striving to coexist and reflect their belief that music can build bridges between peoples of differing nationalities, cultures, religions and political beliefs.

Since becoming an integral part of the Israel Philharmonic’s education program, “KeyNote,” Shesh Besh has appeared at the Tanglewood Music Festival and at Carnegie Hall for the JVC Jazz Festival hosted by Michael Feinstein.  The ensemble won the “European Medal of Honor—Prize for Tolerance 2006” for their effort to improve Israeli-Arab relations.

HWAC music students said they appreciated the performance from an educational perspective.

Senior Jessie Beezley said that hearing Jewish music played by professional musicians has helped her better understand the Jewish cello music she is currently learning.

Junior Hannah Estebat, who takes flute lessons though the college’s music program, said that she was “amazed” at the expressiveness of flutist Yossi Arnheim. “Whatever style he was playing, he made it lively,” she said.

On December 5, the Oklahoma Israel Exchange helped coordinate a visit to Armstrong Auditorium by Director of Cultural Affairs Guy Cohen from the Israeli consulate-general in Houston, Tex. Concert manager Ryan Malone said that okie, the consulate, and Shesh Besh’s Tulsa agent worked together to arrange for the ensemble to visit for free using grant money, making the musical demonstration free both to the audience and to the venue. “So we just walked through the open door,” Malone said.

As its website states, Shesh Besh’s educational program embodies two cultures living together in harmony and is a model of tolerance and mutual respect in a turbulent, violent Middle East.

After the concert, the musicians shared a meal on campus with hwac students, faculty and PCG staff. Shesh Besh returns to Israel on Monday.

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