With Jewish and Arab musicians, Nazareth conservatory puts on first festival

City’s music school, Polyphony Nazareth, brings together Jews and Arabs through musical education

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Young musicians from Polyphony Nazareth, the conservatory from the northern Arab city that has changed the way Arab Israelis are exposed to classical music (Courtesy Polyphony Nazareth)
Young musicians from Polyphony Nazareth, the conservatory from the northern Arab city that has changed the way Arab Israelis are exposed to classical music (Courtesy Polyphony Nazareth)

Nazareth is known for its churches, Galilean cuisine and its Christmas history, but it’s also the home of Polyphony, the first classical music conservatory in Israel’s Arab community.

Next week, the conservatory is hosting the first Liturgical Music Festival in Nazareth, a three-day, pre-Christmas event on December 12-14 in the churches and auditoriums of the city. It offers fans an opportunity to see this classical music program, and its efforts to bridge the gaps between Jews and Arabs, in person.

The festival, Nazareth’s first, will feature visiting troupes, including Germany’s Hannover Collegium Vocale Choir, the Tel Aviv Collegium Singers, the Israeli Brass Quintet, the Latin-American Folk Ensemble and leading local soloists. The central orchestra is Polyphony’s Galilee Orchestra, a 35-member chamber group composed of Jewish and Arab musicians.

The main concert, on Friday night, will have 85 people onstage to perform Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, said Nabil Abboud Ashkar, the award-winning founder of the festival as well as of the Polyphony Foundation.

Nabil Abboud Ashkar, a violinist and founder of Polyphony Nazareth, a conservatory for teaching classical music in the Arab community, who also established the Liturgical Festival, taking place for the first time in December 2019 (Courtesy Polyphony Nazareth)

For Abboud Ashkar, the festival is one of the long-awaited pieces in his dream of classical music education.

“I’ve always felt that what was missing was the city of Nazareth in advancing our agenda,” said Abboud Ashkar. “To me, that meant creating a musical happening or festival or concerts that would be attractive to all people, from around the country.”

The festival is only a small part of what Abboud Ashkar has created.

Abboud Ashkar, a violinist, created the conservatory in 2006 after moving back to his hometown of Nazareth from Germany, where he earned a master’s degree. At the time, he wanted to bring world-standard musical training to Arab children in Nazareth, and to integrate classical music into the local educational system.

At the time, that meant bringing Jewish teachers from Tel Aviv. The conservatory began with three teachers, Abboud Ashkar and 25 students.

Within five years, conservatory students began winning prizes at Israeli musical competitions playing a mix of classical and Israeli music, which signaled to Abboud Ashkar that music could advance integration between Jews and Arabs.

The conservatory has trained teachers, held concerts throughout Israel, and created youth ensembles of Arab and Jewish teens playing chamber music together. Beyond the musical training for the teens, the young musicians worked together over a period of two years, participating in dialogue sessions through music with a Tel Aviv University program.

Young musicians from Polyphony Nazareth (Courtesy Polyphony Nazareth)

“In the end, we’re living in the same place and need to find ways for us to not just live despite one or the other, but really creating more joint and meaningful living,” said Abboud Ashkar. “When we come together, the outcome is something that’s also harmonizing. It’s more than one voice. This festival expresses that in many ways.”

Tickets and information about the Liturgical Festival concerts and weekend packages are available on the Eventim website.

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