A conversation with Palestinian conductor Lamar Elias – Mondoweiss
Editor’s Note: Palestinian conductor Lamar Elias was recently named Artistic Director of l’Orchestre Symphonique Étudiant de Toulouse, and has also worked directly with, or participated in masterclasses with, the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris, Orchestre National du Capitole (Toulouse), Orchestre OUT (Toulouse), Hradec Králové (Czech Republic), and the Braşov Philharmonic Orchestra (Romania).
When I first heard Lamar Elias as a young violin student in a recital in her native Bethlehem, I could not have foreseen that now — fifteen years later — I would be writing about conductor Lamar Elias.
But first, I must pay my debts. I must express heartfelt gratitude to the Israeli state, because were it not for its fetish for imprisoning Palestinians, I would not have been at that concert.
I was in the West Bank as part of a string trio with my partner Nancy Elan and her London Philharmonic colleague Tom Eisner. It was mid-February 2008, and we were in Bethlehem to play at the University en route from points north to Hebron. Our guide and manager, Abdulwahab Sabbah, mentioned that there was a branch of Palestine’s National Conservatory of Music in Bethlehem (Beit Sahour), and that perhaps it would be interesting to visit. So, we did. From the entrance we headed to the office, where he and Jalil Elias, the Director of the branch, immediately recognized each other — they had been in Israeli prison together. “My daughter Lamar is playing in the student recital,” he told us after dungeon reminiscences. “You must come back this evening.”
Lamar’s introduction to the violin was not dissimilar to mine, across a sea, an ocean, a culture, and a half century. We were both the middle child of three in a non-musical family with achievement-oriented parents determined that their kids would succeed and pursue their passion. We were both brought to music and the violin not through orders from above, but through the power of simple exposure.
And for both of us, a USA-backed colonial war of aggression was a common topic at home. For me, it was the one safely on the other side of the planet from me in Southeast Asia. For her, it was the one she lived and breathed.
My exposure to the violin came from a ubiquitous public elementary school, back in the long-gone days when U.S. public schools considered music and art to be valuable even though they didn’t lead to financial gluttony. In Lamar’s case, it was a Conservatory outreach program. Violinist Nadine Baboun introduced her to the instrument, and that simple gift of exposure and of opportunity completely transformed her life — as it had mine in a much different time and place. “I had no idea about the violin before that,” Lamar told me. “I liked sports! So, I didn’t choose the violin — the violin chose me.”
The violin chose wisely.
The outreach program was short, but Nadine — one of two violinist daughters of Vera Baboun, the author, educator, intellectual, and former mayor of Bethlehem — obviously saw Lamar’s interest and talent. She offered to continue giving her lessons once a week as a volunteer, and a year later suggested that Lamar begin studies at the Conservatory with Michele Cantoni, a remarkable violinist, teacher, and tireless enabler of things musical in Palestine.
Fast-forward some years, when Cantoni asked if I would coach a few of his students — Lamar being one. What I most remember about Lamar was the naturalness of her musicality and the sheer joy she exuded when she played — the latter attribute a scarcer commodity in the ‘classical’ music world than one might expect. She went on to win both first and second place in Palestine’s national string competition, and to win the Middle East branch of the Jugend Musiziert International German Music Competition.
Lamar’s determination to conduct was clear from early on, and she pursued that goal with the same dedication and hard work with which she had pursued the violin.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Lamar at the end of August, and began with the question, why conducting?
Lamar Elias: The thing about conducting — we go personal, and it becomes a daily life process. Through conducting we go deep, we discover so much and get to know the music in ways we could not have before.
Tom Suarez: You are still active as a violinist, and have a duo with pianist Mira Abualzulof.
Yes. You remember that Mira is also from Bethlehem and we used to play together? Well, it’s just by coincidence that we both ended up in Toulouse. We’ve been performing together here for five years now, our own music or our own arrangements.
Ah, good, so you still compose.
Yes, for our duo and other ensembles, and also for full orchestra — which of course is good mental work for music analysis, and so for conducting. But I consider composing more a hobby.
Were you able to study any aspects of conducting before moving to France?
In Bethlehem as you remember it simply wasn’t possible for the Conservatory to offer classes on theoretical subjects that I needed for conducting. Sometimes at the Jerusalem branch they had a teacher for a bit more advanced theory, but naturally Israel blocks me from going there with my West Bank I.D.
Yes, the beautiful Ottoman building on Azzahra Street. I taught there while living in Bethlehem. As a foreigner, I could go. But you, Israel blocks you even though it’s in the West Bank according to the Green Line.
Exactly. So my only chance was when conductors came to the PYO [Palestine Youth Orchestra], and I would ask them to give me lessons. But it was only after moving to France that being Palestinian did not block me from conducting. I had to catch up in a hurry here in Toulouse, not just conducting itself, but all the theoretical subjects. Even just being able to see a conductor every day was a revelation for me!
From this, it was probably inevitable that Lamar and I would venture into the very philosophy of conducting. Much of what good conductors do is unseen by the audience: rehearsals spent fine-tuning the gears of an incredibly complicated machine, balancing voices, tonal colors, ensemble, phrasing, articulation, interpretation. At the performance, this is all magically etched in gesture and baton. But is there a choreographic role as well, for its own sake? The twentieth century saw conducting become a visual show in and of itself, audiences flocking to see conductors as they would a rock star. My own gold-standard is the polar opposite — economy of motion — and so I asked Lamar about her views on the ‘choreography’ of conducting.
This today is one of the main questions I have. Why? I started conducting before understanding music, and so the motions were coming from emotion. I had nothing else to go by. Conductors would come to Palestine from Europe to work with the student orchestra. Never someone who spoke Arabic, always an older person from Europe. And I would sit in the violin section looking up at the baton, thinking … I want to do that. So I would go home and try to conduct. But naturally, I knew nothing. Except for what I could imitate, there was no technique — only imagination.
But then in France you were accepted by the Institut supérieur des arts et du design de Toulouse.
Yes. I was very lucky to be accepted by the Institut in the class of Tugan Sokhiev, and to study with the amazing Sabrie Bekirova, and to participate in the International Conducting Academy founded by Sokhiev. This was all a dream for me. After years in Palestine watching foreigners conduct, and not often even at that, now I had a chance. Professor Bekirova is the antidote to the years left on my own. Now every movement has a purpose, a technique I have to master. We clinically deconstruct every little motion. And now I study harmonic analysis, theory, structure, orchestration, performance practice, all the disciplines I need.
[At the time, Tugan Sokhiev was Music Director both of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and of the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse. He resigned from both in 2022 amid pressure to take a public, NATO-compliant position on the U.S.’s proxy war with Russia during the manufactured drum-beat hysteria that even led to boycotts of Tchaikovsky.]
And this is where I had to start thinking about the visual aspect — but nor do I want to become a Boulez, though I love Boulez [a reference to the late Pierre Boulez, whose conducting style was what could be called minimalist]. You know orchestras. Imagine I am in front of an orchestra for the first time. They see me, and wonder Why are you here? We have played this symphony a hundred times more than you! So I have to show that I have something to say. That I bring something to the music. That I have a reason to be there in front of them. And yet orchestras know that it’s easy for a conductor to give a show if they can’t do the real thing. So it is a difficult balance between giving inspiration, and being technically solid and clear. Sometimes at rehearsal what I do is very technical, clinical. But at concerts I concentrate on making music — on and keeping alive the spark which is easy to lose in overworked professional orchestras.
Are there any particular periods or traditions that you are focusing on at present?
I have been focusing on the Romantic and post-Romantic period, in particular the Russian school. That’s in part because I have been trained in the Russian school, but also because I see a connection between the melodicism of the Russian tradition, and Arabic music. More generally, I connect with the Eastern European tradition. I love Czech music, for example.
Bartók? I asked. His connection to Eastern European and Arabic music?
Absolutely. I love Bartók. But to give you quite a contrasting example of how experiencing different things in life makes us appreciate different arts and understand it more, in Palestine I had never had the chance to know impressionism. Now I love it, I have a very special relationship with it. There were different priorities living back home. Now I see everything differently.
Seeing things differently now, where do you begin when you approach a new work?
For me, I like to go personal with the composers, as close as I can get, to know their history and life. It’s all integral to the music.
Lamar is at an advantage for “going personal” with source material for many composers, because she is a true polyglot, fluent in English, German, and French, in addition to her native Arabic. This is an invaluable asset as a conductor: it means she can effortlessly move among a vast geographic stretch of ensembles.
And the future? I asked her. Do you plan to go back to Palestine?
I am torn. I always intended to go back to take part in what I hoped would be the renewal of normal musical life after the devastation of 1948. There is so much to do — there are no residence orchestras, no opera houses, no regular concert series. Arabic music as well has suffered — Palestine’s rich musical heritage needs to be reclaimed. This was always my motivation to return. But then I visit home and face the reality of life under apartheid. Where even to begin to explain what it’s like? Just to organize a simple one-off concert? Much less my grand ideas?
Even from my privileged position as an EU citizen there, yes — half of what anyone in the free world takes for granted is impossible, and the other half is difficult, unpredictable, expensive, humiliating, and all along you never know if in the end Israel will scupper it anyway. For you, just going back to Bethlehem to visit your family means Israel’s extortive and degrading Allenby Bridge ritual. Me? I can go via Tel Aviv.
Indeed my family is another reason I wanted to return. We Palestinians as a society are very family oriented, and there is a real beauty in that. Now I go home to visit, and aside from my family there is nothing for me but barriers. I don’t want to be pessimistic, because I see a lot of people doing wonderful things, and so I see that the future of Palestine is in the hands of young, imaginative people. But they have been put in boxes. And it seems to me that since I left it has become two hundred percent more restrictive. Not just physically — you know the figurative walls are worse than the concrete walls. Young people are being beaten down, beaten down from dreaming, beaten down from striving to become the best version of themselves. Many people get married very young because there is nothing else for them. In other words, the Occupation is doing its job very well.
It’s doing its job well in one way if you don’t return, and it’s doing its job equally well in another way if you do return.
Exactly. So many Palestinians who manage to leave don’t go back because of what is being done to us, and this really worries me, because we are helping fulfill Israel’s dream of erasing Palestine. Yet if we return, we help fulfill Israel’s dream of suffocating Palestinian achievement. So, which one do we fight?
When you were growing up, did your family explain all that was happening? I mean politically, historically?
Yes, I am lucky in that I come from a family where we talked about politics, so at least I could understand. The sense of futility makes some families leave politics aside, but my parents are politically engaged. Politics is daily life. We can’t just be walking beside it. So I understood why, for example, I can’t visit my cousins or my aunt even though they live just a stone’s throw away and on our side of the Green Line. And so I used to be very engaged emotionally. I am still engaged of course. But it’s different.
Different, but perhaps more powerful? Do you have any closing thoughts on the future?
My role? I will keep working to be the best conductor, the best musician that I can be. My hope is that music, and especially classical music, can be a voice of liberty for the Palestinian youth. It is more than the music itself. That we do it proclaims: We are here. It proclaims that we want to live, we want to learn, we want to compete in the world and contribute to the world, in freedom and as equals.
And so we ended on freedom and equality — ideals of which the West claims to be the global torch-bearer, as long as no one has the audacity to suggest that they apply between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
Tom Suárez is a London-based historical researcher as well as a professional Juilliard-trained violinist and composer. A former West Bank resident, his books include three works on the history of cartography, and four on Palestine, most recently “Palestine Hijacked – how Zionism forged an apartheid state from river to sea”.