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As brothers turn Nazareth into classical music hub, festival strikes a chord

Saleem and Nabil Abboud Ashkar discovered music on a second-hand piano; now they’re creating generations of classical musicians in their Galilean hometown

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Nazareth’s second Liturgical Festival, a three-day feast of religiously-themed classical music, may never have taken place had a Russian immigrant not bartered his piano for a used car some 40 years ago.

The festival, which starts Thursday and will run until Sunday, is produced by Polyphony, the first classical music conservatory in Israel’s Arab community, founded by violinist Nabil Abboud Ashkar, whose father traded the family’s used car for the piano.

“Nobody played it at first,” said pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar, Nabil’s older brother. “It was a nostalgic piece of furniture, reminding my mother of the French Catholic school she attended.”

Pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar, born in Nazareth, living and working in Berlin, and involved with Polyphony — a classical music conservatory founded by his brother, violinist Nabil Abboud Ashkar, which will launch its second Liturgical Festival, December 17-20, 2020 (Courtesy Saleem Abboud Ashkar)

In 1982, a Palestinian family member visited the Abboud Ashkars by way of the Good Fence, Israel’s then-porous border with Lebanon that was open to Maronite Lebanese who wanted to find employment in Israel. Their cousin played piano and became Saleem’s first teacher; he was just 6 years old at the time.

“I caught the bug,” said Saleem.

There were, however, no piano teachers in Nazareth at the time, and Saleem and Nabil both ended up leaving home at a relatively young age for their musical educations.

Leaving home to study and travel abroad was the only way to connect and be exposed to classical musical culture, said Saleem.

He left home when he was 13 and went to London, followed by stints at several schools in Jerusalem with regular travels to Europe and the US. He made his Carnegie Hall debut at 22, and now has an international career as a pianist.

Nabil followed a similar path but returned to Nazareth from Germany in 2006 to establish the Polyphony Conservatory, embarking on a path that would culminate in bringing world-class musical training to Arab children in Nazareth.

Nabil Abboud Ashkar, a violinist and founder of classical music conservatory Polyphony Nazareth (Courtesy Polyphony Nazareth)

“My brother has given his life to this,” said Saleem. “That initial impulse of my parents to get a piano, creating this love of music which was then passed on to my brother, [has made it] so that other kids don’t have to go through that search that we had. Studying music doesn’t mean leaving or having to search for it outside of your home.”

This year, the coronavirus has kept Saleem in his adopted home of Berlin, but with the entire festival taking place online, he is still able to perform twice.

The first performance will feature him conducting a Catholic hymn, Pergolesi’s masterpiece “Stabat Mater,” on Friday, December 18 at 8:30 p.m., broadcast from Sophien Church in Berlin, a 17th-century Protestant church.

“I was constantly searching for music and crossing borders, becoming at home elsewhere,” said Saleem. “I feel at home where I’m able to express myself and where I’m able to do the things I love, it’s creating a different sense of what home is, a home that is ritual and not geographic.”

Even while in Berlin, Saleem will be joined for the performance by an orchestra composed of Jewish and Arab musicians who are currently based in Germany, including one who recently graduated from Nazareth’s Polyphony Conservatory.

Having graduates of Polyphony, as well as a second generation of musicians being trained at the conservatory, along with their younger siblings and parents, has helped create a classical music community in Nazareth, said Saleem.

“It takes time to create a musical ecosystem where parents and children and hopefully grandchildren become musicians and concert-goers and listeners,” he said. “That cycle that reinforces itself takes time and enormous stubbornness, you need to keep at it all the time and now we’re at the tipping point.”

Saleem has remained a part of this changing classical music project in Nazareth, returning home regularly to teach, conduct and perform, as part of the school’s overarching efforts to break down barriers between religions and culture through musical education and projects, using music as a common language.

“I didn’t want to just sit in my parents’ garden and eat hummus when I visited,” said Saleem. “Being a musician is such a huge part of who I am, and it was important to be connected on all levels to my home city.”

It’s been 16 years since the conservatory was founded, and this year is the second for the Liturgical Festival. Now with more than 100 students, graduates, European tours and competition winners, there are different projects and orchestras and opportunities for the local audience to engage in the classical music being produced by the school, said Saleem.

The festival, which is held during the Christmas season, allows the conservatory to open its doors and reach out to the wider community, helping break down perceptions and bring together the Jewish and Arab communities.

In non-pandemic years, it would involve bringing people into the churches of the historically holy city, mixing together music, holiday traditions and spiritualism at a time when interest in Jesus’s hometown normally has masses of tourists flocking there.

Besides introducing Nazareth’s youth to classical music and performance, the Polyphony conservatory has created youth ensembles of Arab and Jewish teens who play chamber music together, and participate in dialogue sessions through music.

The Liturgical Festival takes that process a step further, offering music fans an opportunity to hear classical works performed in Nazareth.

“It’s a new thing for people from Tel Aviv to come to Nazareth to hear a great classical concert,” said Saleem. “Usually they come to see the churches and eat good food in the Galilee, but now’s the moment when we work on improving awareness and that’s what will change perceptions.”

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