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  • Writer's pictureCayenna Ponchione-Bailey

Looking Forward: One for the history books

Updated: Aug 23, 2022

On 5 July 2022, an extraordinary event took place in London. Nine new compositions by Afghan composers were performed by the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and guest musicians on rubāb, dutār, sitār, harmonium and tablā. It was the first time that a professional orchestra anywhere in the world outside of Afghanistan had performed a full programme of works by Afghan composers. Eight of the pieces were especially commissioned for the performance and received their world premieres. I had the profound honour of conducting and presenting these compositions to a rapturous London audience that evening. Check out all the composers and what they have to say about their compositions here.

Part of the Spitalfields Music Festival, the concert took place at EartH, a former Art Deco cinema in Hackney originally opened in 1936, closed in 1984, and recently renovated in 2018 into a wickedly atmospheric music venue by the same people who transformed the Village Underground.

The orchestra, in formal concert attire (‘concert black’ and tails) marking the significance and importance of the occasion, were positioned in front of a video screen which was used between pieces to show videos made by each of the composers to introduce their works. (You can watch those introductory videos on this website by finding them on the individual composers’ pages.) These video-recorded introductions were necessary because at the time of the performance these composers were not able to travel to the UK to be physically present for the premieres of their own works. The situation for Afghans living in exile continues to be precarious and international travel is as yet all but impossible for most. A Zoom call was set up for the composers to listen in to the rehearsals and performance from their locations across the globe—not quite the same as being there in person for sure.

Mats Lindström performing the cello solo in Meena Karimi's "Dawn"

From the first note of the concert, the energy in the room was super-charged. The silences pulsed, the grooves thrilled, the melodies uplifted and haunted, and at the end of each piece the audience erupted in cheers and applause. There was more than once I felt a dampness around my eyes and a powerful ache in my chest that nearly knocked me my off my task of steering the ship that night. The orchestra played gorgeously, and it felt like everyone on that stage gave 150% that night. Yes, it was absolutely one of those!

Shabaz Hussain (tablā) and Saphwat Simab (rubāb)

Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way. A friend of mine who attend the concert said she was speaking with a woman from Afghanistan who was also in attendance and the woman told her that ‘it was the best night of her life since coming to the UK...and then retracted that to say it was the best night ever’.

So, if you’re kicking yourself right now because you didn’t manage to get to this concert, don’t worry! The Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra and our guest musicians will be performing the programme again on 15 June 2023 in the historic Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Moreover, over the next couple of months, I am going to highlight each one of the pieces on this concert with short video teasers that will give you a sneak-peak into these incredible new compositions!

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