Soloist reflects on singing with national orchestra

The National Arab Orchestra performs Arabic-based music. Vanguard Photo | Brooke Elward

SVSU concert choir singers performed a “once in a lifetime” concert with the National Arab Orchestra’s Takht Ensemble.

The Feb. 7 concert was part of the ensemble’s educational performance series.

Sterling Heights native Michael Ibrahim founded the nonprofit orchestra in 2009 to demonstrate to audiences the fundamental elements of Arabic music.

While most of the pieces were quartet-only arrangements by Ibrahim, the concert choir did join in during “Lamma Bada.”

Audrey Johnson, a music education sophomore in both concert choir and Cardinal Singers, said the performance was a “once in a lifetime” opportunity.

She soloed during the arrangement, which was an Arabic love story with themes and variations on the same melodies and verses.

Johnson said the singers were not able to perform with the quartet before the recital, but Ibrahim was able to join them during their Feb. 5 rehearsal.

“He worked with us on diction because he is from the Arab culture,” she said. “He said, ‘You guys did great preparing the song, but you’re saying it kind of all wrong.’ We had no idea. There was no offense taken anywhere.”

Johnson said Ibrahim gave the singers the “educational points” of the arrangement that they normally do not receive during class.

“He talked a lot about not necessarily about the differences in music but the cultures themselves, too, and how that effects the music and how the songs are sung,” she said.

As a soloist, Johnson said she was fortunate enough to receive a one-on-one lesson with Ibrahim after concert choir’s rehearsal Wednesday night.

“It felt like, ‘You are a really big name, and I get a coaching from you,’” she said. “I remember saying that it’s almost like you’re taking everything you’re trained to do here as a classical singer and throwing it out the window for a moment. You have to adapt to that culture and how they sing.”

Johnson said the singers wanted to “get the message out” that they are trying new things and stepping out of their comfort zone.

“Even with going back to our mental health concert last year, there’s a very big sense of fear when it comes to doing something new,” she said. “Are we going to offend anyone? How is this going to come across to the public?”

Johnson said the risks to both the mental health concert and the Arabic-only singing during Friday’s concert were worth it.

“When we first found out we were singing it Arabic, we were scared,” she said. “French, Italian and Old English are pretty standard for classic singing, but Arabic isn’t. I think we all learned a little something from it.”

Johnson said more choirs should take risks and take “the bigger step instead of doing the norm” for more concerts.

“You’re educating your audience,” she said. “If you said Arabic music, the audience would probably have some sense of what that is, but if you said Arabic chorale music, they probably wouldn’t have a clue what you’re talking about.”

She said most audience members think of “Aladdin” when they hear mention of “Arabic music.” Johnson said the Friday concert helped challenge that misconception.

“(The concert was) really important for us and the audience,” she said. “We learned from Michael and the orchestra, and we got to educate the audience about chorale music and what it’s like in the Arabic world.”

Kaitlyn Farley

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