The dramatic story of a Syrian guitar quartet escaping the ongoing destruction of the Syrian civil war for a fellowship at the University of Victoria offers a remarkable message about the power of music, hope and determination. Alexander Dunn, an internationally renowned guitarist and instructor with UVic’s School of Music for nearly three decades, played a vital role in bringing the Orontes Guitar Quartet to the university as recipients of a prestigious Artist Protection Fund Fellowship grant.
To secure the quartet’s arrival in Canada, Dunn worked closely for the past 18 months with two US-based organizations—the Artist Protection Fund (APF), an innovative initiative of the Institute of International Education, and the non-profit organization Remember the River.
The quartet told the Globe and Mail that their peaceful lives in Syria had been disrupted by the civil war, and violence and terror became commonplace. But when the ensemble started to play together, “we forgot everything because we just focused on what we are doing,” as recounted to The Globe’s arts reporter Marsha Lederman in a December 8 article in the national edition of the newspaper.
First collective to be named Artist Protection Fund Fellows
The classical guitar ensemble—Gaby Al Botros, Orwa Al Sharaa, Nazir Salameh and Mohammed Mir Mahmoud—faced violence in Damascus where they and their families were at risk from extremist groups and often targeted as musicians.
They are among the youngest artists—and the first collective—to be named fellows of the APF and were welcomed as Visiting Artists to UVic’s School of Music in early November.
Dunn’s colleague and friend, the highly esteemed classical guitarist and US composer Susan McDonald who teaches in conflict hot spots, also played a crucial role in bringing the four musicians to North America. The quartet was unable to travel to the States due to the ongoing travel ban.
Unique guitar culture and respected music program
Dunn has built a unique guitar culture here which garners global respect and led to UVic being identified as an ideal haven for the quartet. During the ensemble’s time at UVic, Dunn will serve as their mentor, organize musical activities and provide coaching.
“The Orontes Quartet’s visit will enrich local musical activity and have positive repercussions in the greater community and across Canada for their compelling story of music and political affairs in the Middle East,” adds Dunn.
His local non-profit the Victoria Guitar Society will also provide daily practical support to the quartet.
Formed in 2015 at the University of Notre Dame Louaize in Beirut, the quartet has defied all odds to create careers as concert guitarists. While in Syria, they appeared with the Syrian Philharmonic, on Syrian MTV and Sky Arabia. They also arranged multiple concerts, some of which had to be cancelled at the last minute due to violent incursions. They have also worked as teaching assistants in Lebanon and taught a guitar program for Syrian refugees.
Upcoming performances in new year
While at UVic, the Orontes Quartet will coach UVic students, produce a digital recording using UVic School of Music facilities, give talks on their experiences and musical activity, as well as perform publicly including at local churches and mosques. They also hope to mount a limited tour of Canada in 2019, with potential dates in Vancouver, Calgary, Winnipeg and Toronto.
Funded in partnership with global initiatives
Remember the River supports artists in war zones and the APF fills a critical unmet need by providing fellowship grants to threatened artists and placing them at welcoming institutions in safe countries where they can continue their work and plan for their futures.
UVic’s Faculty of Fine Arts and School of Music have partnered with the APF to support the Orontes Guitar Quartet through September 2019.
Get a taste of what makes the Orontes Guitar Quartet special as they play Boccherini’s “Fandango” in this video:
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He felt the bomb before he heard it. . Nazir Salameh’s right arm, the one he played guitar with, had been hit. Salameh ran to the nearest car, which happened to be a taxi. “To the hospital, to the hospital! Hurry up!” he told the driver, who set off through the streets of Damascus toward help. . The pain was excruciating; Salameh had to hold his right arm up with his left hand. When the shelling began, he had been waiting for two of his bandmates on their way to a rehearsal for their quartet; he had to leave his guitar behind. . Salameh says he had one thought on his way to the hospital: “If I will not play [guitar] again, I prefer to die.” . Telling the story three years later during an interview from the safety of the University of Victoria, the 26-year-old Syrian rolls up his shirt sleeve. “There was a mortar shell that entered from here,” he points to the scar on the top of his arm near his bicep, “and outside from here,” he says, lifting his arm to show another scar on its underside. . Despite the severity of his injury, Salameh was able to play guitar again. This skill eventually brought him here, to the School of Music building on UVic’s forested campus, along with the three other members of the Orontes Guitar Quartet. Gaby Al-Botros, Mohammed Mir Mahmoud, Orwa Al-Shara’a – all 25 – and Salameh, 26, arrived two weeks earlier. . The men are spending the year in the B.C. capital on fellowships organized by the Artist Protection Fund (APF). Based in New York and funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the APF supports threatened artists around the world by providing fellowship grants and designing residency programs at academic or cultural institutions in safe countries, following a rigorous application process. . “Finally, and after everything we’ve been through, the dream has come true!” Orontes posted on their Facebook page from Victoria on Nov. 11, Remembrance Day. “Many thanks to APF … for doing the impossible.” — Follow the link in our bio for more from Marsha Lederman Photos by Rafal Gerszak, The Globe and Mail, @rafalgerszak