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WorldTuesday, June 13

Musical Diplomacy

Saudi Arabia's religious leaders have labelled some areas of Western culture as harmful and corrupting. They've banned movie theaters and rarely permit public concerts. But this is slowly changing -- and one Japanese orchestra is taking center stage.

Over 80 musicians and a conductor arrived in Riyadh in April to give the first classical concert Saudi Arabia has allowed in decades.

When Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz visited Japan earlier this year, he agreed to promote more cultural exchanges between the 2 countries.

Saudi leaders want to end their reliance on oil revenue, so they're looking to foster other industries. One sector they've got their eye on is entertainment.

Western music is banned in public places in Saudi Arabia, but that doesn't stop people from enjoying it privately.

Khalil Al-Muwail teaches Western music at his home in Riyadh. About a decade ago, he started making weekly trips to neighboring Bahrain to study piano and music theory.

Now he's hoping that by passing on what he learned, he can overturn some local prejudices.

"We are always having this message coming from our people: music is not good, music is very bad, music is something that will lead you to do something wrong. We have to show them the others, like orchestra, like international music, like the classical music which is good music and affecting positively the people," he says.

Three days before the concert, the musicians begin rehearsing with conductor Hirofumi Yoshida.

Khalil had met Yoshida before, and he also helped them find a score for Saudi Arabia's national anthem.

He went to watch the rehearsal.

"I have one comment. It's too speedy, too quick. You need it slow," Khalil told Yoshida.

About 3,000 people, including Khalil, turned up for the rare chance to see a full orchestra.

They listened to the national anthem, as well as pieces by Mozart and others.

"Very nice. Really loved it. It's the first time here in Saudi Arabia and it was really good," says a visitor.

"It was very perfect actually. This is what I have talked with Mr. Yoshida, and he said maybe we can cooperate to open a new orchestra in Saudi Arabia," says Khalil.

Saudi authorities have already proposed doing just that. They believe Japan can serve as a role model for adopting Western musical traditions.