Shadia: Passionate music where Middle East meets the West

Music runs through my blood like the Nile River runs through Egypt.

And if you know anything about Middle Easterners, Egyptians especially, you know we love our music.

My mom, Shadia, loves the songs and music of Egypt's oldest legends — Oum Kalthoum, Abdel Halim Hafez and Nagat, among many others. Use YouTube to find videos of Abdel Halim Hafez when you get a chance. You won't understand a word, but you'll love it anyway.

Some of my favorite singers died long before I was born, but I and many others love them because their music transcends the ages.

And I credit my mom for exposing me, though maybe accidentally, to great music.

For some outsiders, the Middle East offers nothing but trouble, dictatorships, extremism, oppression and war, but the Middle East I know has much more: great entertainment and food, rich history and cultures, kind and sincere people.

I love Western music, too. One of my favorite hobbies, aside from shopping, is singing. I sing in both Arabic and English.

But I've always thought of Western and Middle Eastern music as totally separate, not for mixing.

Until just two Saturdays ago, when I experienced something amazing at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa. It left me a changed person, mesmerized and more hopeful than ever about the world in which we live in.

Yes, a few hours of music did that to me.

But it wasn't just any music — it was the perfect merging of the Middle East and West.

When my friend and colleague Bradley Zint, who writes the "Classically Trained" column for Times Community News, told me that this year's American Composers Festival put on by the Pacific Symphony is celebrating Nowruz, the Persian New Year, I told him I already wrote about Nowruz in one of my columns and that I didn't plan on writing about it again in the near future.

Brad insisted I check it out. He said it would be a shame if I didn't attend this one-of-a-kind festival and write about it.

I decided to attend with my friend Lauren Williams, who covers courts and crime for the Daily Pilot. Brad was right. It would've been a shame to miss it.

The four-day music festival debuted a new work by American composer Richard Danielpour, a New Yorker of Persian and Jewish ancestry. His "Toward a Season of Peace" is a seven-movement oratorio in Hebrew, Farsi, Arabic, Aramaic and English. It was sung by soprano Hila Plitmann and the Pacific Chorale. The piece was conducted by Pacific Symphony Music Director Carl St.Clair.

The festival also featured "Kodaly: Dances of Galanta," conducted by Farhad Mechkat, who was once the principal conductor of the Tehran Symphony Orchestra, and the Shams Ensemble, a traditional Sufi and classical Persian music group. The festival was presented in collaboration with Farhang Foundation, which works to celebrate and promote the study and research of Iranian art and culture.

When Shams Ensemble began playing, I found myself being transformed to a world far away, a world where Shahrazad was telling one of her stories as people gathered around her to listen while the Shams played in the background.

But I also wondered why St.Clair was standing there quietly.

Then he started raising his arms and the orchestra followed, playing along with Shams.

Lauren and I looked at each other at the same moment and said, "Wow!"

"It was really special to hear these ancient instruments used with such passion accompanied with a full orchestra," Lauren later said. "I would have thought the traditional Persian instruments wouldn't blend together with the orchestral ones, but they added this depth and cultural richness that was incredible."

It really was incredible; my heart was beating with the music. And it dawned on me: If our music could be mixed so flawlessly, why do some of us tend to focus on our differences instead of our commonality?

Before that night, I had never experienced something so eye-opening, so passionate like the Middle East and sincere like the West.

You should be jealous, oh so jealous, if you didn't experience it.

MONA SHADIA is a reporter for Times Community News. An Egyptian American, she was born and raised in Cairo and now lives in Orange County. Her column includes various questions and issues facing Muslims in America. Follow her on Twitter @MonaShadia.

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