Conductor Mohammed Othman Sidiq is on a quest to keep classical music alive in Jordan.
Sidiq is the longtime conductor of the country’s national orchestra called JOrchestra.
But most of the orchestra’s players haven’t been working largely due to the coronavirus pandemic, and he’s deeply concerned about the future.
COVID-19 has been hard for artists and musicians around the world as clubs, concert venues and opera houses shut down.
But in Jordan, it’s been especially detrimental — the country’s only symphonic orchestra was already in trouble financially, and may be shuttered permanently.
Sidiq and other musicians worry it could have dire consequences for classical music in Jordan.
“It’s a pity for the future of the Jordanian music scene.”
“It’s a pity for the future of the Jordanian music scene,” Sidiq said, speaking from an elegant, spacious office at the National Music Conservatory in the country’s capital, Amman.
The 60-member JOrchestra has been on and off for many years. It was created in 1988 as the Amman Symphony Orchestra, and was the third symphony orchestra to be founded in the Middle East.
Sidiq came to Amman in 1993 with the Iraq Symphony, and he was asked to stay to develop this orchestra.
Under his direction, they performed numerous Arabic classics such as “The Coffee Cup Woman Fortune Teller,” a song of doomed love based on a famous Arabic poem by Nizar Qabbani.
The Amman Symphony was originally funded by the National Conservatory in the heart of Amman. In 2014, it became known as the Jordanian national orchestra, or the JOrchestra, as it's known.
Around 2017, funding sources dried up, and the JOrchestra stopped performing regularly — doing only special events — which made it hard for the musicians to earn a living.
Amman tenor opera singer Ady Naber remembers the last time he sang with the group, in July of 2020: “We performed the concert in one of Amman’s most important historic places, the Amman Citadel, between the ruins of many civilizations, like the Temple of Hercules and the Umayyad Palace, with a view overlooking the center of downtown Amman.”
He is saddened by the orchestra’s current situation.
“To me, it’s a privilege singing with the main orchestra of my country.”
“To me, it’s a privilege singing with the main orchestra of my country,” Naber said. “I find joy in performing with them, as I know many of the musicians personally. In addition, I always noticed a beautiful bond between the musicians and their conductor, Mr. Sidiq.”
He said that with the decline and disappearance of the orchestra, there is no incentive to become a musician, especially to learn certain instruments like tuba or bassoon.
It makes students feel like there’s no point in learning a musical instrument if there are no opportunities to play with an orchestra, he said.
Naber said he knows the region has other priorities such as unemployment and poverty. And when the pandemic hit in March 2020, all operations ceased for the JOrchestra.
Sidiq was crushed.
“And now, there is no orchestra here and all the Arab world has orchestras.”
“And now, there is no orchestra here and all the Arab world has orchestras,” Sidiq said.
Many other countries in the Middle East, such as Iraq and Egypt, maintain their orchestras with government funding.
“In Iraq, the orchestra is an institution under the government. It's one of the government’s institutions, so it has its own fund. It’s under the Ministry of Culture.”
Cairo Symphony conductor Maestro Nayer Nagui is concerned about a larger problem. He wishes there was more interest in classical music in the region.
“We are selling something that is not mainstream. Imagine the difference between selling Beethoven in Germany or in Syria. The struggle of being a classical musician is universal of course, but we suffer much more in the Middle East for that,” he said.
Sidiq, as a conductor and composer, seeks to bridge that gap between Arabic and Western music. He often writes pieces for traditional Arab instruments.
“Oud Hope” pays tribute to the oud, a sort of guitar. Like most of Sidiq’s pieces, the score also features classical Western instruments.
Another of Sidiq’s compositions is called “Khawatir,” which loosely translates to “Ruminations;” it combines Arabic rhythmical sequences with melodic lines played by Western instruments such as the violin.
Someday, he hopes to return to conducting — Sidiq’s dream is to create an orchestra of musicians from throughout the Arab world.