From Amman to Aldeburgh

Helen Wallace meets musicians from the Aldeburgh Middle East Orchestral Development Programme

From Amman to Aldeburgh
Egyptian flautist Kholoud Sharara tries out Britten's own piano with violinist Ahmed Owida

Hisham Alhadrab is an emergency nurse from Jordan who teaches percussion on a set of broken timpani at the Amman Conservatoire. Helmy Benawi has just finished his military service with the UN and wants to get back into practice as he re-enters Cairo’s Symphony and Opera orchestras. Marcellino Safwat is co-principal cellist of the opera orchestra, and makes a wonderful sound from a cheap, factory-made cello, while flautist Kholoud Sharara is adjusting to her new life in Paris having just entered the Ecole Normale de Musique.

These are four of seven visitors to Snape for the first wave of the four-year Aldeburgh Middle East Orchestral Development Programme. They’re rehearsing for a performance of new works inspired by Britten’s Nocturne at the Britten Weekend alongside Aldeburgh Young Musicians and Britten-Pears Young Artists. In the exuberant Benawi’s case, he’ll be playing in the premiere of John Woolrich’s Call to the Mirrors (Aldeburgh Brass, 25 October) alongside brass legends John Wallace and Richard Watkins.

The scheme is supported by the British Council, which specified that musicians should come from Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, all countries currently in the Official Development Assistance bracket. Sadly, the fraught situation in Palestine prevented recruitment this year, but the intention is for Palestinians to join in the future.

Artist development co-ordinator, Emily Curwen, travelled to Cairo and Amman to find students in conservatoires and universities for the scheme. ‘We were looking for exceptional 18 to 30 year-olds. In Cairo, they enter the conservatoire quite young and learn Arabic music on Western instruments before some take up Western classical music. But in Amman there was a real scarcity of performers in that age group, as those who excel are encouraged to study abroad, on the understanding they’ll return and teach, and play in the Amman Symphony Orchestra – but that was disbanded two years ago, leaving a lot of musicians without work. There were plans to build a concert hall but none of it has come to fruition. Hisham couldn’t even play the audition piece on timpani, he had to use other drums, but he impressed us even so.’

Promising candidates were given video-link lessons over the intervening months by high-profile British teachers, and then a final selection of students was made. Even then, they didn’t all make it: one had crossed over the Syrian border into Turkey and then been refused a visa to travel to Britain.

While at Snape they’re given one-to-one lessons, and I sat in on one from ex-Philharmonia clarinettist Michael Harris: one moment he was urging Moustafa Saeed to think of Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto in more operatic terms (‘Look! Here’s where the gardener comes in…’); the next he was dealing with an out of tune clarinet which needed expert fixing. They agreed that Moustafa should visit the wind experts Howarth’s during his one day in London, ‘You’ll love the buzz there,’ Harris assured him.

Twenty-year-old cellist Marcellino Safwat played Bach’s D minor Suite to cellist Michael Hurwitz with lavish ardour. ‘If I start the day with Bach, all is well’, he mused. The charge that this project smacks of cultural imperialism dissolves when you encounter a musician already so deeply committed to this tradition. Having played in the Britten-Pears World Orchestra in 2012 he felt quite at home in Snape and was enjoying introducing his colleagues to fish and chips on the sea-front. 

The long-term plan is for more young players from the Middle East to apply to the annual Britten–Pears Orchestra residency, and to initiate practical and creative exchanges. Cairo Opera Orchestra would love Aldeburgh to be involved in sending over French horn players for a three-month stint, for example, to develop a section, while it’s hoped that an Arabic ensemble from the Cairo Conservatoire may be the focus of a creative residency at Snape. ‘Orchestral musicians today need the skills to be able to improvise and learn from other traditions,’ says Bill Lloyd, who set up the project, ‘so this would directly feed into their professional development.’

Hisham Alhadrab, the intense young Jordanian percussionist, sounded a more sombre note: ‘It’s been great working with percussionist Gary Kettel on these superb instruments, but this is just one week of my life. What do I go back to? I don’t even have a decent set of timpani, let alone all the rest. Some of these young students have already studied with four different great teachers – I hope they realise how lucky they are.’ He despaired of making a living as a musician, though as a qualified music therapist, percussionist and nurse Alhadrab is going to be making a daunting contribution wherever he works.

I put the question to Roger Wright, former Radio 3 Controller and now Aldeburgh Music’s new chief executive. He’s familiar with such situations from his contact with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, where players would go home to find all the orchestras had been shut down or it simply wasn’t safe to work in that city any more. ‘We can’t have a life plan for every young musician who comes here. There’s no two-year programme from which they can graduate. But we can bring people together, plant ideas, show them how we do things, what we’ve learnt, challenge them, open doors, and give them time and space in this extraordinary place.’


A New Nocturne takes place at 2pm on Sunday 26 October as part of Aldeburgh's Britten Weekend. Visit for more information


  • Article Type: | Blog |
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