Syrian quartet escapes ravages of war for fellowship at UVic

Fine Arts

(l-r) Orwa Al Sharaa, Gaby Al Botros, Nazir Salameh and Mohammed Mir Mahmoud in front of UVic’s Fine Arts Building, November 2018. Credit: UVic Photo Services.

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 UVic music instructor 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 an 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.  

Orontes Guitar Quartet with Alex Dunn
UVic music instructor Alexander Dunn (pictured in foreground) with (l-r) Al Sharaa, Salameh, Mir Mahmoud and Al Botros in the Phillip T. Young Recital Hall, UVic School of Music, November 2018. Credit: UVic Photo Services.

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.

[The quartet] will help to communicate the healing value of music in the midst of upheaval.
—Internationally renowned guitarist and UVic music instructor Alexander Dunn

Quartet defied all odds to create careers

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 music school 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.

More information and videos

Photos

In this story

Keywords: international, music, community

People: Alexander Dunn

Publication: The Ring


Related stories