Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My father!

This is the first of a series of posts I will be posting over the next few weeks as a tribute to my father:

My father died on 30th September 2007. He eventually succumbed to the brain haemorrhage that felled him on the podium while conducting the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra on 27th April 2002.

That stroke should have killed him then and there, but such as he was, he defied all odds and lived 5 years, 5 months and 3 days longer than he should have. To Syria he was a “National Treasure”, but to me he was my father, and my friend.

Solhi Al-Wadi was born in Baghdad on 12th February 1934 into Iraqi aristocracy. His father, Hamed Al-Wadi, was the leader of the Dulaim Tribe, and was Chamberlain to the Royal Court (Al Diwan Al Malaki) of King Abdullah I, then King of Transjordan. His uncle Shaker Al-Wadi held positions of Minister of Defence of Iraq and Minister of Foreign Affairs at various times. At the time Solhi was born Shaker was Iraqi Ambassador to Iran. Solhi was the only boy in the Al-Wadi family and was spoiled rotten. His uncle Shaker took him everywhere he travelled. The picture below was taken in Tehran.

1st Picture: Solhi with Shaker.
2nd picture: from L to R: Hamed, Sarmad, Solhi, Cynthia, and Widad (Hamed's 2nd wife)

Hamed Al-Wadi came to prominence during the Arab uprising against the Ottoman Empire during World War I. He fought the Turks alongside King Faisal I and Al Sharif Shaker Bin Zeid at the time when T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) had promised the Arabs self rule. They were later betrayed by the Sykes-Picot agreement which divided up the Middle East as mandates between the British and the French.

The Three Kings - Seated from L to R: King Ali, King Abdullah I, King Faisal I. Behind King Abdullah in black suit, Hamed.

Al Sharif Shaker Bin Zeid on the extreme left, Hamed on the extreme right. In the middle in the black suit Hamed's brother Shaker Al-Wadi

Hamed's children grew up with Al Sharif Shaker’s children. Solhi and Shaker’s son Prince Zeid Bin Shaker, who was born in the same year as Solhi, grew up as brothers. They were inseparable. They went to school together, then to London together where Zeid Bin Shaker went to the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst. Zeid and Solhi remained best friends until Zeid’s sudden death in September 2002. By then Solhi was incapacitated, and he was never told of Zeid’s demise.

Solhi with his childhood and school friends: Zeid Bin Shaker in military uniform in the 1st picture. Ghazi Shaker in all 3 pictures.

Hamed was away from home for much of the time, and Haddia, Solhi’s mother, for various reasons, preferred to live in Damascus rather than Baghdad, so soon after Solhi was born, the family relocated to Damascus.

Solhi with his mother Haddia Burjaq Al-Wadi

Solhi was a rebellious child. He was the only boy amongst 3 sisters, and his mother doted on him. In an effort to get him under control he was sent to boarding school at Beirut College for Women which took boys Solhi's age, but he promptly ran away to the Iraqi Embassy and demanded transport back home, which he got. Solhi was then enrolled at the prestigious Victoria College in Alexandria in Egypt which was further away. He was dropped off there by his parents where he protested further by purloining his parents’ passports and hiding them in the lavatory cistern in his hotel room. It took them a long time to get him to confess. He was only 11!

Solhi at 11 in Alexandria when first dropped off at VC

At VC he joined his best friend Zeid and was class mates with the likes of King Hussein of Jordan, Sultan Qaboos of Oman, Hisham Nazer, Adnan Khashouggi, Ghazi Shaker and many of the Arab aristocracy of that generation. Despite that, he remained a rebel; smacking the future king of Jordan in the face when he inadvertently broke one of his precious old 78 rpm speed classical recordings, and repeatedly attempting to run away from the regimental system that was in place by the British administration at VC. One time he made his own way to Cairo on a train trying to con his way back home.

1st picture - L to R: Ghazi Shaker. Solhi, Zeid Bin Shaker. 2nd picture: Solhi with Hisham Nazer. 3rd picture: Solhi and Zeid with others.

During his time at VC he developed his love for music, and to silence those detractors who considered him less than manly because of his love for music he played his way to become captain of the VC senior football team. By all accounts he had a lethal left foot!

Solhi with the various trophies won in football. In the 1st and 3rd picture Solhi is to the left of the man in the suit. In the middle picture Solhi is between the 2 men in suits.

In the summers Solhi used to return to Damascus and he soon mixed with the fledgling classical music enthusiasts and other members of a revolutionary movement with a love for the fine arts, people like Sadek Faroun and Rafah Qasawat. Sameem Al-Sharif, who was a childhood friend of Solhi’s, and who later married his sister Huda, was instrumental in getting this group together. Sadek and Rafah played the violin while Solhi played the viola and conducted. They persevered and eventually, with 3 instruments, played the Introduction to Boildieu’s “Calif of Bagdad” and the 2nd movement of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony at the Ommayad Hotel in front of an astonished public. In the late 1940’s this quartet started the serious classical music movement in Syria.

Clockwise: Irfan Hadaya, Mohamed Al-Amir, Sameem Al-Sharif, Solhi, Albert Fitz

Solhi’s mother died in 1953 when he was just 19 years old, and he was devastated. He absolutely idolized his mother, and often during his illness he would call out for her.

Solhi and his mother in a frame made specially to commemorate Solhi's birth

Shortly after that his father sent him to London. Solhi was sent to London to study agriculture with the view that he would eventually return to Iraq to manage the farmlands his father had developed and nurtured. But Solhi had other ideas and greater ambitions. Unbeknown to his father Solhi enrolled to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He had a love for conducting; he also loved the sound of the viola. So he studied both as well as composition. And when his father found out that he is not studying agriculture and threatened to stop his allowance, he started studying agriculture as well.

It was during this time that Solhi met my mother Cynthia, a Welsh born young lady from English parentage, who had earned a scholarship to study the piano at the Royal Academy of Music.

She would observe this handsome foreigner in a long coat and a hat with a viola under his arm walking into the Academy and wonder about him. Eventually she would join him in the cafeteria where he would sit with friends and talk enthusiastically about music and composers they’d never heard of before; Prokofiev, Shostokovich, Mahler, Bruckner, Nielson, Sibelius and others.

Solhi and Cynthia in London in the mid 50's

In 1960 Solhi returned to Damascus and started work on establishing classical music as part of the music and fine arts scene in Syria. In 1962 he founded the Music Conservatory in Damascus, which later became the Arab Institute of Music, and he was appointed its Dean.

Some of the early students at the Conservatory

Solhi struggled hard in the early years of the formation and evolution of the Music Conservatory. He constantly came up against doubters, traditionalists and suspicious individuals who did not believe there was a place for classical music in Syria. However, a new class of classical music enthusiasts was simultaneously being born, and with it a new generation of performers and artists.

Students undertaking their exams

Solhi observing the exams

Solhi brought into the Conservatory foreign specialists; piano teachers, violin teachers, cello teachers, music theory teachers, etc. mostly from the former Soviet Union. By the late 1960’s many of the Conservatory students were being dispatched to the Soviet Union, to further their studies, on government sponsored grants. He hoped that these students would return and take up teaching positions at the Conservatory while its student base grew and the Conservatory grew with it. Solhi would be repeatedly driven to despair when many of the students returned from abroad and joined local popular Arabic music bands, mostly because they were paid more money.

Students and teachers

Solhi fought hard for his students and always stood up for them. He was also very firm with them. He stood no nonsense and would not tolerate behaviour less than that befitting their status as talented serious musicians. He was very quick to recognize a musical talent in students and was passionate in encouraging and nurturing it, yet he would have no qualms in punishing any student if he felt that they were wasting their talent. His uncompromising attitude soon earned his students’ respect, and this most often led to unbreakable friendship.

Solhi with some of his students

Solhi had a revolutionary approach with his students. He treated them as friends and they would often come over to our house where we would sit together and listen to music and discuss in great detail various composers and compositions. We often went on trips to the country together.

Solhi with more of his students

Over the years enough students achieved sufficient competency levels for Solhi to start thinking about forming a symphony orchestra. After many years in the planning the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra was founded by Solhi in 1993, and he was its resident and principle conductor. This orchestra started performing in Syria, and soon started receiving invitations to perform in countries abroad. Over the next few years it would perform in Lebanon, Egypt, Kuwait, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey, Spain, Germany the United Kingdom and the United States of America. Solhi also received invitations to conduct other national orchestras in various countries.

An orchestra evolving

His work was also being recognized at the highest level of Syrian government officialdom. The late President Hafez Al-Assad supported the development of the Music Conservatory from its early inception, and personally followed its progress.

Students and teachers with President Hafez Al Assad

In 1995 President Assad honoured Solhi with Syria’s highest civilian award, the Order of Merit in its highest classification.

Dr. Najah Al-Attar, Vice President of the Syrian Arab Republic, then Minister of Culture, after bestowing the Order of Merit Medal upon Solhi

In the years to come demand for higher education in music grew and the High Institute of Music and Drama was established in a modern new complex. Solhi was appointed its Dean. This complex also included the new state-of-the-art Dar Al Assad Opera House. Solhi supervised its construction and looked forward to performing the Opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell at its opening, however, his illness prevented him from doing so.

The High Institute of Music and Drama

Solhi's office

The entrance to Dar Al Assad (Opera House)

In 1999 the Komitas State Conservatory of Yerevan in Armenia awarded Solhi an Honorary Doctorate, and in 2000 the Russian Academy of Arts and Sciences granted him an Honorary Doctorate.

Solhi receiving an Honarary Doctorate from the Russian Embassador

Solhi organized many of his concerts in churches around the world, and in particular in Damascus. He had a particular love for chorale music, and requiems. This led to him being recognized and honoured by leaders of the various churches in Syria.

Metrapolitan Georgous Archbishop of Homs presenting Solhi with a shield

Solhi conducting a Chorale in the presence of Isodore Battikha Archbishop of Damascus

In May 2001 Pope John Paul II visited Syria as part of his Millennium tour, and on 5th May Solhi conducted the Syrian National Symphony Orchestra in the Mass at the Abassid Stadium in Damascus where it was attended by thousands of worshipers. I was fortunate enough to be present for that occasion. In recognition of his services to music in Syria Pope John Paul II honoured Solhi with the Medal of St. Peter and St. Paul during this visit.

Papal Mass in Damascus, May 5th, 2001

The medal of St. Peter and St. Paul

The last of Solhi's concerts that I attended was in April 2001 in Beirut where Solhi conducted the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra at St. Joseph's Church in Monot. Also present at this concert was Prof. Ahmed El-Saedi, then Director and principle conductor of the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Solhi, Dr Gholmieh and Prof. El-Saedi were in the process of planning a joint venture with the three orchestras, however, Solhi's illness put an end to this project.

Solhi and Walid Gholmieh
Solhi conducting the Lebanese National Symphony Orchestra