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Classical music, with a Syrian twist

The elite Syrian National Symphony Orchestra finds a novel way to build an audience.

DAMASCUS, Syria — The Damascus Opera House was practically full one recent weeknight as a gathering of medical professionals from around the Arab world came together to hear the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra.

The lights dimmed, and conductor Missak Baghboudarian strolled on stage to mild applause. He launched the orchestra of about 60 musicians into a rendition of the overture from Rossini’s "The Barber of Seville."

Again, the crowd’s response was less than overwhelming.

The orchestra played several more numbers before Baghboudarian invited acclaimed Palestinian oud player Simon Shaheen on stage. The audience visibly perked up.

For the next 40 minutes, the orchestra and Shaheen blended the classical music of Europe with traditional Arab sounds, violins and French horns against an oud and a tambourine.

It practically brought the house down.

Baghboudarian is leading the effort to bring classical music to Syria, and even if he has to throw in some Arabic sounds to engage his audience, it looks as though he’s succeeding.

“My experience with the Syrian audience,” he said, “is that they’re very open, very elastic. They’re curious to hear things they haven’t heard before.”

As interest in classical music has grown, so too has the competition to join the orchestra.

The opera house occupies a prominent spot in a central Damascus square. Behind high walls, it shares a campus with the High Institute of Music, which, since 1993, has fed the National Symphony Orchestra nearly all of its musicians.

The first class of 43 students entered the institute in 1990. Only 16 graduated from the five-year program.

Today, the institute has a level of selectivity that would make most U.S. colleges envious. According to the institute’s vice dean, Hussam Eddin Brimo, about 200 students apply annually for only 30 spots.

The institute limits enrollment in large part, said Baghboudarian, because there just aren’t enough professional outlets for classically trained musicians in Syria.

The National Symphony Orchestra, which is the only one of its kind in Syria, provides the most significant employment opportunity.