Syria ‘Going Through New Period’ with the Arts

At 34, Missak Baghboudarian must be one of the youngest national symphony orchestra conductors in the world.

“Everything is young in our country these days, from the president down,” said Baghboudarian, who smiled as he settled into his office at Syria’s High Institute of Music.

Also young is the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra (SNSO), which has been performing since 1993 and is still a “work in progress,” according to Baghboudarian. The conductor said there wasn’t even a school teaching classical music in Damascus until 1960.

“You can’t compare that to Europe, where there is 300 years of musical tradition, but we are at a good level. The orchestra is a very big cultural project we have in Syria,” said Baghboudarian, a Syrian of Armenian origin.

The SNSO has about 80 to 90 members, depending on which repertoire is in the works. There are also plans to establish a youth orchestra composed of some of the 160 students in the conservatory.

Baghboudarian, who trained for six years in Florence and Milan, took over the symphony’s reins in 2003 from Solhi Al-Wadi, the orchestra’s founder and a former dean at the conservatory. Many consider Al-Wadi the founding father of classical music in Syria. After establishing the Arab Music Institute in 1960, he spent the next four decades encouraging the growth and development of classical music.

The SNSO has already toured several countries, including Oman, Turkey, Germany, Spain and the United States. Baghboudarian said a highlight was playing at the Orange County Performing Arts Center and UCLA’s Royce Hall, both in Southern California, where the orchestra played to enthusiastic crowds and press coverage.

The symphony’s repertoire runs the gamut of classical European and Arab composers. “We’re trying to do some opera arias also,” Baghboudarian noted. “We’re also starting to break out into other genres like movie soundtracks and jazz. Last year we did an Argentine tango and a folk music show.”

In Damascus the orchestra and opera play to packed houses. Tickets are free, subsidized by the Ministry of Culture, which also covers the budgets of both organizations.

Baghboudarian said part of the orchestra’s job is to build an audience for symphony music not only in the capital but throughout Syria. “We have to travel around Syria, so people know this kind of music, so that it can develop,” he said. “I’m optimistic. We have a lot of horizons and a lot of projects to do in the future.”

The symphony, conservatory, opera and ballet are all housed at the Dar Al-Assad Opera House for Arts and Culture, an impressive limestone complex that opened in May 2004 and is now the nerve center of Syria’s high culture. During any given week, there are also performances of modern theater and dance in the complex’s smaller auditoriums.

In a typical month, arts lovers could have seen a performance of Anton Chekhov’s “The Bear,” a Syrian play called “Antigone Immigration,” a ballet by the French troupe Ballet d’Europe, modern dance performances by two Syrian troupes, and a musical concert by a Syrian women’s orchestra or a Swiss-Syrian Jazz Concert.

On Other Fronts Music is not the only artistic form of expression that is flourishing in Syria. Today, Syrian TV mini-series have become highly popular in the Arab world.

Syrian painters and sculptors are receiving high acclaim by international art critics. In fact, many would consider the artistic movement in Syria as vibrant as in any major Western country. Foreign diplomats always list the rich cultural life in Syria as a major reason for their preference to serve in Damascus.

The Embassy of Syria in Washington, D.C. is currently working with the Arts Museum of the American University to hold a major exhibition of Syrian Art in June 2007.


About the Author

Imad Moustapha, Ambassador of Syria to the United States