“The news has made people think that Jews hate Arabs and Arabs hate Jews,” said Peter Marck, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra’s principal double bass and a member of the Arab-Jewish music group Shesh Besh. “But it’s not that way. We are evidence that it’s not that way.”
Marck is currently traveling with Shesh Besh on a U.S. tour, which runs through April 9. On March 31, the group makes its way to Main Line Reform Temple for a concert at 3 p.m., followed by a reception with the artists.
The group was formed in 1999, when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra decided to reach out to the country’s Arab population by creating a musical group including both Arab and Jewish musicians. It was the first ensemble in the orchestra’s KeyNote music education program.
It was created during a more hopeful time for Arab-Israeli relations, explained Marck. In May of 1999, Ehud Barak became prime minister of Israel, and over the next year and a half, Israel withdrew its military presence from Lebanon and entered into the Camp David summit talks.
But those talks eventually floundered, and were followed by an intifada in 2001. Despite that, and other periods of violence that have marked the Arab-Israeli conflict in the 18 years since, Shesh Besh — which now consists of three Israel Philharmonic Orchestra musicians and four Arab musicians — continues on.
The U.S. tour kicked off on March 24 and 25 in Washington, D.C., with performances at AIPAC’s annual policy conference, and then continued to American University for a concert on March 27. After the concert at Main Line Reform Temple, the ensemble will head to the West Coast for concerts at Google, Salesforce East and Beth Jacob Congregation in Los Angeles. The tour will end with a performance at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon.
The Philadelphia concert will be presented in partnership with ARTolerance, an organization that uses art to create dialogue. ARTolerance founder Udi Bar-David, an Israeli cellist who plays in the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Jeffrey Lang, the Orchestra’s associate principal horn, will join Shesh Besh for the performance.
Shesh Besh’s music covers a wide range of genres, including Arabic folk, Western classical, original Israeli compositions and more. The blend of music symbolizes the ensemble’s mission of creating connections between different cultures.
“This is meant for lovers of foreign music,” said flutist Yossi Arnheim, who grew up in a Jewish family in Tel Aviv. “If we would want to identify the genre of music of which we belong to, it has to do with world music.”
In the early ’90s, Arnheim began playing Arabic folk music on the side because he wanted to do something a little different than what he was used to. He called that project “Shesh Besh,” the Hebrew name for a Middle Eastern game similar to backgammon. Several years later, when the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra decided to do its outreach to Israel’s Arab community, they approached Arnheim about merging Shesh Besh with the orchestra.
“Twenty percent of Israel’s population is Arab,” Marck said. “We thought it was the proper way to address the demographics of Israel.”
Now, most of the group’s concerts are for students in Tel Aviv, but sometimes the group does perform for general audiences in other parts of Israel and the world. When they play for general audiences, such as the U.S. tour, the audience is usually Jewish.
The audience is not the only difference between this tour’s concerts and the group’s Israel concerts. While the ensemble usually performs with seven musicians, this tour includes only five because it overlaps with the Israel Philharmonic’s tour in Australia.
Aside from Marck and Arnheim, musicians will include Michael Maroun on the oud, a lute-like instrument; Aziz Naddaf on the tablah, a tambourine-like drum; and Sami Kheshaiboun on the Eastern violin.
Maroun, an Arabic Christian who grew up in a village near Haifa, said he decided to join about five years ago because of the high caliber of the other musicians in the group, and for the opportunity to build bridges between Arab and Jewish people.
“The music is a good language for all the people, and we are trying to make a bridge between Arab and Jewish [people],” Maroun said. “Music is the best way to do that.”
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