Orchestral music performance is an art form, but how do you engage with something you’ve never experienced before? Samiyah Alghamdi and Anna Knox attend NYO Celebrates in Wellington and unpack what they hear.
The National Youth Orchestra and the New Zealand Youth Choir were performing as part of the NZSO’s 2019 Podium Series, which was the perfect moment for a cultural exchange. Samiyah is from the Azir region of Saudi Arabia, so I was partly returning the hospitality Saudis had shown me when I lived there; they showed me unique aspects of Saudi culture, and I wanted to do the same. I was also curious.
In 1932, tribes were united under the conquering Al Sauds and formed a country called Saudi Arabia. Since then, the official national story has been written and rewritten by oil, wealth, and Wahhabism, which by the 1970s had come to dominate society. Most notably, it dominated the education system; unsurprisingly, western musical canon was not in the curriculum, or anywhere else very audible. To be fair, Middle Eastern music never featured in my education either.
By the time I lived there in 2009, though, western influence was stronger. The internet had brought western movies, music and television into the everyday sphere of most Saudis. However, other than in film scores, Samiyah hadn’t heard many orchestral pieces. I wondered what she’d make of a formal orchestra concert.
The musicians were tuning as we took our seats in the auditorium, where the first question Samiyah had was whether there’d been an orchestra at my wedding. I laughed and said that a very rich person might, but not me. “Sorry to ask, but what about funerals?” she wondered next. I explained I hadn’t been to many but that people often sang religious songs, called hymns. “With the words from your book? The Bible?” “Sometimes,” I said. “But mostly a person has written the words, usually a hundred or more years ago.” How odd! I thought, as I said it. Why? Then the conductor, James Judd, ran out onto the stage, and the audience started to clap.
My experiences in Saudi taught me how nerve-racking the unknown formalities of a formal situation can be for a first-timer: what to wear, how to behave, when to sit, when to stand, when to be quiet, how to look, where to look, all the time pretending you are completely at ease. So I anticipated the etiquette around the evening being strange for Samiyah.
The NYO composer-in-residence, Glen Downie, opened the evening with his piece light speckled droplet. This complex work, well-executed by the musicians, could be heard as a reflection on the properties of water but it also brought to mind a noir film score; a foggy, industrial shoreline, or an ocean boat lit at night.
If this was water music, Tuirina Wehi’s Waerenga-a-hika, arranged by Robert Wiremu, was firmly rooted in the land, calling up not only the ghosts of the Waeranga pā but also others more local. I could feel them down my spine as the waiata soared out mournfully over the single-note chant of a male chorus. The performance was perfect and the music a unique marrying of influences: waiata, classical chorus, and the upbeat of something like a Belle and Sebastian song. These came together to make something exquisitely contemporary, while also reaching back over centuries. It is one of the most extraordinary and moving pieces of music I have ever heard.
Then we talked about the distinction between a composer and a performer and why Glen Downie was not going to sing for us. The Michael Fowler Centre itself was also uncharted territory. When we first arrived we passed an auditorium where the pre-concert talk was happening and Samiyah assumed it was another concert going on. In Saudi, public spaces include malls, hospitals, airports, and, more, recently, movie theatres, but there is nothing like a town hall, and the idea of having one huge and glamorous space dedicated almost solely to singular musical performances, rather than several concurrently, was something new.
While the mechanics and the context of the evening were foreign, the music was most definitely not. When I asked Samiyah what she thought of it, I guess I was digging a little, looking for dirt, or something, with which to mock the seriousness of our canon. Instead, I hit gold.
“I believe that I am from the people who feel the sound of music and that was a kind of music which talked to me as a child, saying such beautiful stories,” she said. “My mind went back to when I was a child holding my toy and walking and playing without any stress. Sometimes I felt that I entered the sea to explore. And sometimes I was walking between the green fields laughing and running like a country girl in cartoon stories.”
Her favourite piece was Edward Elgar’s The Music Makers, a work for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and chorus, set to the poem Ode by Arthur O’Shaughnessy. “I liked all the pieces,” she told me, “and actually every piece made me feel differently, but I think the last one affected me most, maybe because it was sad and full of hope at the same time.” The British composer would have been pleased with this response to his elegiac work, the chorus of which opens, both sadly and hopefully, thus:
We are the music makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams…
The Music Makers considers the position of the artist in society, an age-old question as topical in contemporary Saudi Arabia as it is the western world. Even in the 11 months she’s been away, Samiyah said that so much has changed back home. I saw this in the nearly four years I lived there, too. The country seems to redefine itself internally on a daily basis and in multiple directions, and artists of all mediums are caught up in this.
In the midst of all of the solemnity of the evening, there was a moment when a mobile phone rang. It happened part-way through a verbose section of Sibelius’ mesmerising The Oceanides. Still, it felt like the entire audience turned to look. I asked Samiyah afterward if there was any time or place in Saudi society when people were required to be still and silent for such a long period of time, or turn their phones off. She immediately described prayer. “When we pray we stay calm, concentrate, don’t use our mobiles or talk to others. We do an arrangement of movements with certain verses which make us feel relaxed and happy and our minds free from any thoughts.”
This observation, and our earlier conversation about weddings and funerals reminded me that the music we had been listening to, while no longer necessarily religious, was still deeply rooted in religion, whether Christian or otherwise. Thinking about this, I realised I almost miss hearing the call to prayer five times a day as I did in Saudi, and the constant reminders of God; as regular as breathing but as mystical as breath. I think when music works, it’s a bit like that: a shape from the other side, dropping through. Even if the holiness of music is something we have largely forgotten, it’s there, taking us somewhere—into our childhoods or into the ocean, like a dream.
Perhaps that was what Samiyah meant when she said she was from the people who feel the sound of the music, because if music is for anything, it is for this – taking us beyond ourselves, beyond the limitations of our individuality into something collective and universal and timeless. There was no doubt that regardless of our different cultural backgrounds and musical experiences, when we turned our ears to the orchestra, we were hearing the same story.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.