Harmony Unites Middle Eastern Musicians

Along a dirt road and under bushy green trees here, a Middle Eastern peace of sorts is flourishing. Eager representatives from Israel, Jordan, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt are sitting next to one another, communicating clearly and in full accord.

This "peace agreement" is the result of the art and tenacity of the Apple Hill Center for Chamber Music, which has brought together 14 young musicians from Middle East countries to play music with American musicians.

Most of the well-known troubles of the Middle East disappear in the harmony of music and new friendships in this hillside summer camp. "In chamber music you play together and you learn how to listen to each other," says Igal Braslavsky, a teenage violinist from a Jewish settlement in the West Bank. "In Israel you hear about bombs all the time, and not very nice things about the Arab world, but here you can see that everybody is the same."

Seated next to him in front of the camp's Concert Barn is Nabeeh Bulos, a teenage violinist from Amman, Jordan, who says, "The whole point of chamber music is to listen to each other clearly and without interruption, and that is what we ought to do when having conversations and debate."

Since 1988, the Apple Hill Chamber Players have traveled to the Middle East to give concerts and then selected young musicians there for scholarships to attend chamber-music summer-school sessions here for a month.

Rustic, informal atmosphere

Located in the southwest area of New Hampshire, Apple Hill is an informal, rustic 70-acre music camp, the home of the Apple Hill Chamber Players, who have been together for 20 years. Operating funds are derived from corporations, individuals, and government agencies.

The camp is driven as much by a sense of community as by the sound of music. "Our style is not to get involved in politics," says Eric Stumacher, a pianist and a founding member of Apple Hill. "What we are about is answering the question of what do we do today and tomorrow. Politics wants to know whose fault it is and how did we get here."

Richard Hartshorne, a bass player and member of the Apple Hill Chamber Players, says the success of the program has a simple premise. "No one thinks musicians shouldn't be able to play together," he says. "When we are in the Middle East, we find ourselves in situations where we are the symbol of the way people want things to be."

While distrust, violence, and religious differences have prevented open border crossings of people in the Middle East, the Apple Hill presence and purpose, recognized by all the governments there, has allowed them access to the countries.

It has not been uncommon in the region for hatred to be so pervasive that some people will not utter the name of the enemy country. In a 1994 PBS documentary on the Apple Hill journey to the Middle East called "Playing for Peace," an Arab pianist says the word "Israel" softly and lowers her head.

"The cultural affairs officer at the US Embassy in Tel Aviv told me that their job is to create cultural contact between Israelis and Arabs," says Mr. Stumacher. "But they can't really do it, so we do it for them."

The Apple Hill philosophy springs from the conviction that all levels of musical accomplishment should be applauded in a community where all ages are embraced. "Ours is sort of an anti-conservatory message," says Mr. Hartshorne. "The conservatory attitude is that you can't play beautifully until you graduate, and then you'll probably need a master's degree."

About 100 Middle Eastern musicians have attended the summer camp sessions since l988. Although most musicians at Apple Hill are under 20, all ages are represented and all perform together. The camp functions in a spirited, informal atmosphere where rehearsals, performances, and daily life are filled with humor and appreciation. "We play music," says Stumacher, "we don't work music."

The musicians live in small cabins dotted throughout the camp and eat together cafeteria-style in the multipurpose Concert Barn. Social gatherings and sports are part of daily life. Every Tuesday evening through Aug. 20, the Apple Hill Chamber Players performed with selected students, and the students will perform for the public Aug. 24 and 25.

"This is my second year," says Allison Smith, an oboe player from Williamsburg, Va., who speaks French, German, and Italian. "Everybody is totally friendly. There just aren't any barriers. I played in a quintet for two winds and three strings, and I was the only American."

Life-changing experience

To pianist Cecil Khill, an Arab Christian from Nazareth, Israel, and the first scholarship winner in l988, the Apple Hill experience has been life-changing.

"I used to play just by myself," she says now as a faculty assistant at the summer sessions. "Before Apple Hill, I didn't know it was important to listen to each other through the music. Sometimes it's hard to be away because when you live in Israel, you have to follow the news all the time."

For Ayelet Ballin, a bassoonist from Ramat Ilan near Tel Aviv, being at Apple Hill is a prelude to her duty next month in the Israeli Army. "Here I sit at the table and eat lunch with new friends from Egypt and Jordan," she says. "It might take two years at home before this could be done, but I want to be friends with all my neighbors."

Lasting relationships have developed despite the barriers when the musicians return home. "At one time, some of the students from Jordan would send us letters to be sent to their [new] friends in Syria and Israel," says Hartshorne, "and we would change the envelopes and send them on."

What Stumacher and Apple Hill want to do is extend the idea of breaking political barriers with music to Ireland and England, North and South Korea, and some kind of a program in Germany with post-Holocaust themes.

"We want the idea to ripple out with an energy that demonstrates the idea of community for the world," says Stumacher.

*For information call Apple Hill in New Hampshire at (603) 847-9972.

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