Samuel West London choir on West Bank

An icon of St Mary in the West Bank

Copyright: Ryan Rodrick Beiler

The inaugural Palestine Choral Festival brought Britten to Bethlehem, Jordan and the West Bank. Actor Samuel West performed with the Choir of London, adding carols to calls to prayer, and discovering that music can - quite literally - cross borders.

Sam WestThe Choir of London is an unusual group - itinerant and committed, it mostly tours the Middle East, maintaining and strengthening links made with Palestinian choirs and musicians since 2004. This is my third visit to Palestine with them.

The last time I directed The Magic Flute in Ramallah, Bethlehem and Jerusalem, which turned out to be the first fully-staged opera ever to visit the West Bank. This time we’re here as part of the inaugural Palestine Choral Festival, a big project curated by the COL’s Michael Stevens, involving 26 Palestinian and five international choirs. I’m looking after a new opera production by the tenor Andy Staples, based on Britten and Auden’s Hymn to Saint Cecilia.  We’re also doing workshops, cabaret songs, close harmony groups, a gala concert at the Ramallah Cultural Palace and three performances of Britten’s Saint Nicolas conducted by Britten scholar Paul Kildea. It’s all hands to the pumps for those, and I get to sing.


The choir is staying in neighboring hotels in the centre of Bethlehem. Every morning we split up and the bus takes some of us away to a village to sing with local kids, or to rehearse for the next concert, or in our case, to be locked in a darkened room until we have a show.

St Cecilia became not only the patron saint of music but also a poster girl for music as resistance

St Cecilia is the patron saint of music; Benjamin Britten was born on her Saint’s Day 100 years ago, a coincidence that may have led him to compose the piece that bears her name.  Andy was inspired to tell this story by a martyrdom myth of St Cecilia: the Romans, who didn’t like her, bricked her up in a heated bath chamber and waited for her to suffocate. She sang constantly for three days, refusing to die, so the Romans took her out and chopped her head off. She became not only the patron saint of music but also a poster girl for music as resistance - a woman who creates a music-filled dream world in which to survive and hold on to her dignity.

The piece presents a woman in prison, played by the Palestinian Jordanian soprano Dima Bawab. She is hooded and bound and she remembers her childhood ('Sometimes I would close my eyes and dream of being next to my mother.') We hear depositions from Palestinian detainees spoken by a narrator (me); they mix with the comforting words of her arias ('I have hung ropes from bell-tower to bell-tower; garlands from window to window; golden chains from star to star – and I dance.' from Britten's song-cycle Les Illuminations)

At the end of the piece the woman dies and is revived by the cyclical memory of her mother, at which point the five singers perform the whole of the Hymn to Saint Cecilia almost as her theme song, and the piece ends. It’s a fairly intense hour - there aren’t a lot of laughs - but the performers and band (string quartet, horn, harp and the Palestinian pianist Dina Shilleh) do it so beautifully that with the simplest staging and a lighting plot that holds the action confined, it works well.

RamallahAt our first venue, Bethlehem’s Dar Annadwa, the technical director George tells us that our chair is wrong. 'Chairs don't have backs in prisons - so people can't rest', he said.  We need the back to move the chair easily. The chair stays.

On the way to the technical rehearsal today, I pass a roadblock run by a Palestinian policeman in his new, EU-sponsored uniform. The same short story plays out with every car. The driver stops, gesticulates, shouts that he wants to go straight on, the car behind starts beeping, the policeman stands still.  Then when the man starts to get really angry, the policeman swings his rifle off his shoulder and casually playing with the safety catch, approaches the car. The man stops shouting, shrugs and turns left as asked. Then it all starts again with the next car. Low-level protest designed to make one feel alive; it’s part of everything.

The Amman Citadel, Jordan

Amman CitadelArriving in a new venue gets less and less frightening; the bare stage, instead of intimidating, presents possibilities. Though the 3000-seat Amman Citadel presents other things too - principally wind, which whistles through through the strings of the harp and makes it hum like a spaceship.

By 6pm the stage is set and everybody stops and waits for the sun to go down so we can focus lights.  As evening falls the horn player Joe Walters stands on the edge of the cliff and treats the valley below to Luke's Theme from Star Wars. It mixes with the police sirens.

 I hide in the back row and marvel at the surrounding expertise. Professional choristers automatically anticipate

In technical terms, to have gone from poor overworked George in Bethlehem, via brilliant Muaz in Ramallah to the 30-strong Amman Tech Army is a bit of a culture shock. They're very good, though they insist on showing us all the lights in their toybox and playing Pink Floyd very loud indeed to demonstrate their subwoofers. The Great Gig in the Sky brings tears to my eyes as I sit in the stands trying to balance the string quartet. Luckily the nearest neighbours are half a mile away.

In the middle of the show we have to pause for the call to prayer; we leave Dima kneeling on stage for ten minutes, which is agony for her, but since she’s in prison being tortured probably helps tell the story. It’s a particularly tuneful muezzin; the call cannons across the valley, each new entry radiating from a turret lit by green neon. We restart the show after a respectful silence and there is polite applause.

Today is also municipal election day in Jordan, so mixed into the noise of traffic and dinner are celebratory fireworks and, indisputably, machine-gun fire. The Amman Festival people turn up with five video cameras, one on a big boom. Cue live relay of the gig on two massive screens, in between Arabic translations of my narration. There’s lots of son and a fair amount of lumière and even some drame around the edges. Job done.

The West Bank (again)

ScoreTwo of the odder COL gigs happened today - first, two halves of the choir sang Britten's Hymn to the Virgin across the River Jordan: two groups in two different countries, singing antiphonally over the Israeli border. The Israeli-side group were ten feet and about seven hours' travel away. Britten wrote Hymn to the Virgin when he was only sixteen. I hope he would have liked the circumstances of today’s performance.

The second is going on at the moment - we're singing St Cecilia in Israeli Immigration. On the way back from Jordan we’ve been stopped at Allenby Bridge. Two hours and counting, so we thought we might as well rehearse; not only as a tribute to the patron saint of music as resistance but as a way of getting through passport control quicker. It doesn’t seem to be working - the Israeli officials are delighted and keep asking us to sing more.

Allenby was the British general who, after taking Jerusalem from the Turks, entered and gave the proclamation that the old city's holy sites would be protected by the British. He gave it at Jaffa Gate (where I bought a nice hat) and was generally believed, partly because his name sounded like "Allah nabi" - "the prophet of God".

Two of the Palestinian musicians we've been working with are refused permits from Ramallah and one Brit coming from Jordan is turned back at Allenby Bridge

Now that we've got Saint Cecilia out of the way, we're switching saints. Britten wrote the cantata Saint Nicolas for Lancing College in 1948, and they were very lucky to have him. The only thing that doesn’t work is Britten's sailors, who have to sound butch by shouting things like "Reef her!" and "Nonsense!"  Even the strapping COL basses fall at that fence.

Conductor Paul Kildea knows as much about Britten as anyone alive; it’s great to have him here. His rehearsals necessarily go like lightning, but the choir are used to it; although I remember my pencil, in this company I’m a ligger, always playing catch-up. I hide in the back row and marvel at the surrounding expertise. Professional choristers automatically anticipate. As soon as they arrive on a note they know how long it is, so they look ahead (often way ahead) and prepare for what’s to come. It’s not a habit I’m finding it easy to get into. As soon as I arrive on a note I’m so delighted when it’s in tune I stay there as long as possible.

Allan Clayton is giving a characteristically gorgeous performance in the title role. Someone called his voice beautiful in an approachable way - the sort that if it began a ballad in a pub, would cause the drinkers to put down their pints and listen. He turns up at the Jerusalem rehearsal in a red and white Liverpool shirt. He says he’s getting into character by dressing as much like Father Christmas as possible.

Inside ChurchWe aren’t quite at full strength for the Bethlehem performance. Two of the Palestinian musicians we've been working with are refused permits from Ramallah and one Brit coming from Jordan is turned back at Allenby Bridge. This might be because he said he was going to Ni'lin, where we did a children's singing day last week. Ni'lin is a Palestinian village on the edge of the wall, near where Israeli settlements have been built on land captured by the wall's path. Every Friday there's a demonstration there and it's not a place Western Europeans go very often. So the Israelis might be suspicious. 

Our wish is that the music and the connections we’ve made here will live on after we’ve gone

Although travel in the West Bank has got much easier than it was when I was first here, getting permits for Jerusalem hasn't.  In 2005 we were singing in the Jerusalem Chorus fiftieth anniversary gig and their conductor, who now has to live in Ramallah, was stopped at a checkpoint and couldn't conduct her own birthday concert. Nicholas Collon deputised at the last minute. We thought it was despicable, but the Palestinians seemed to find it perfectly ordinary.

The last performance of St Nicolas is at Beit Jala, the village just up the hill from Bethlehem. In a typical example of Palestinian timekeeping, we arrive for a 5pm rehearsal just as the scheduled 3pm wedding begins. We mill about outside while from inside come the strains of Ave Maria sung in Arabic (beautifully).

The next day I say goodbye to the Festival with a Gala concert in Bethlehem - eight Palestinian choirs of all sizes and ages, the Australian Voices, who are ace, and the COL close harmony group doing 'The Bear Necessities', which brings the house down. Our wish is that the music and the connections we’ve made here will live on after we’ve gone, but I hope it’s not too long before we’re back. A tenth anniversary tour next year, perhaps?

On the way home, after saying I’ve visited the West Bank, I am strip searched in Tel Aviv airport. Ben Gurion airport security are famously the most thorough in the world, and they don’t disappoint, keeping me there for over two hours. In my luggage is a new t-shirt of the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, who wrote the Palestinian Declaration of Independence; they’re kind enough not to notice it.

Sam West will appear as narrator with the Aurora Orchestra in concerts of Britten's film music on 7 November in Portsmouth and 10 November in Croydon