The Salesian Church of Don Bosco looms over the city of Nazareth, like a sentinel guarding its charges. Its tall, chalk-white stone dominates this city of 80,000 people, equally divided between Christians of different denominations and Muslims. Named after an Italian priest, Don Bosco, who flourished in the 19th century, the church is a wonderful memorial for his work, with orphans and other poor children, for whom he opened schools of technology, one of which sits adjacent to this site.
It is perhaps symbolic that this 100-year-old church should be witness to another outreach innovation: the first Festival of Liturgy created by a musician, Nabil Abboud Ashkar, whose opening night was celebrated here.
A native of Nazareth himself, Ashkar conceived of this festival many years beforehand and readily admits that, “This is the climax of many years of effort.”
Those years started at a very early age, when Ashkar’s parents encouraged him and his brother to listen to and study Western classical music. “Our parents were very passionate about classical music – which, at that time in Nazareth, was very unusual!” An ironic smile crosses his face as he says this.
“Not only were our parents fascinated by this music, they were also committed to an extent that my brother and I had to learn the violin and piano. It meant taking us on a weekly basis to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem or Haifa to hear concerts. My brother, Saleem, who is a guest conductor in the festival, is a concert pianist living in Germany. He was a child prodigy, appearing with the Haifa Symphony in a Mozart concerto at the age of 10. Later on, he played with Zubin Mehta and the Israel Symphony Orchestra in Chicago at the age of 17. At the age of 22, he played Carnegie Hall. He also recorded with Decca and EMI. His was a very straight path in the development of his career.”
“I had slightly different ideas about my future. I loved my music but wasn’t as focused as my brother. I went to Tel Aviv University and did a double major in physics and music. Then I joined the orchestra founded by Daniel Barenboim. I met my teacher and went to study with him in Germany in 2002. I completed my master’s there, returning to Nazareth in 2006. In Nazareth, I founded the first classical music conservatory with the support of the Barenboim-Said Foundation. "This was the reason I came back," he said. "My idea was to bring the highest level of training to the most talented kids. We started with 25 students. Teachers came from Tel Aviv twice a week. By the end of the first year, we surprised even ourselves with the progress the kids had made, in the commitment of the parents and in the relationship between parents and teachers. At the beginning the program was only for kids from Nazareth; today it’s a different story.
“As with regular Israeli schools, pupils in Arab schools have no music studies in their curriculum. Where is the Ministry of Education or Culture when they are most needed?”
Nabeel started from scratch. By the end of the first year, it was clear that there was a demand. He doubled the number of students to nearly 50 and added more teachers. The lessons were given after school hours, and, as Nabeel notes, “They all took them very seriously.”
The students were not only Christians, but Muslims, too – and later, Jewish kids as well.
“We had a couple of landmarks,” recalls Nabil, “such as the first time our 8- to 9-year-olds went to Tel Aviv to compete for the Keren Sharett awards. We had to lie on the form, writing that they had been playing for five years, when they had been playing for only two-and-a-half years. I remember, too, when the jury asked them where they were from and they said Nazareth. They had to ask them again – they couldn’t believe it! Moreover, 10 of our students won these prestigious American prizes!" he exulted.
“In 2012, two of our 15 to 16 year olds (one of them a Muslim), took part in a competition in Tel Aviv for violin. They ended up winning first prize. This was a big moment for us. We had shown that through excellence in music, you can break long held prejudices. We proved that there is talent in Nazareth and that it is possible to give Arab youngsters a path to musical excellence. It showed everyone that there is a space for us in Israeli culture, especially in the area of classical music.”
“With the help of a family in New York, we started to think beyond the classical music in Nazareth and how we could spread the message elsewhere in Israel. This was not only for the Arab community; we could create the possibility for Arab and Jewish youngsters to study and play together. This creates channels for dialogue and makes the Arab youngsters feel more integrated into the local scene.”
The festival program showed the extent to which Ashkar’s dream has been realized. The guest choir was from Hanover, the “Collegium Vocale of Hanover.”
It is one of the finest choirs in Germany, and it opened the proceedings with a varied program of works in the Don Bosco church, dramatizing their entry by appearing one by one from behind the altar. They sang a variety of religious songs from Thomas Tallis through Brahms and Benjamin Britten. The perfect unison of their voices was helped by the neo-Gothic architecture, whose immensely high ceiling made it seem that their melodic singing was indeed bound for the heavens. Their conductor, Florian Lohmann, apologized shyly when introducing their last work, Haim Nachman Bialik’s “Shabbat Hamalka” (The Sabbath Queen), hoping that their Hebrew accents were right. They were, and the Jews in the audience applauded ecstatically.
The choir went on to perform another two concerts, accompanied by Ashkar’s own Galilee Orchestra, conducted for this occasion by his brother, Saleem, on a visit from Germany. This ensemble is also part of the story of Nazareth’s discovery of Western classical music. Initially, in 2012, Nabeel included just three Arabs in the ensemble. The rest were Jewish. “People made fun of me: ‘You’re doing an Arab Orchestra with three Arabs!’ I answered by saying I’d rather not compromise my music, and accept any Arab musicians to say that we have an orchestra. Today, after seven years, we have about 13 or14 Arabs out of 56 members. The conductor also is an Arab – my brother.”
The concerts also took place in the local Maronite Church as well as in the Nazareth Industrial Park, which was set up in 2013 by Stef Wertheimer, one of whose aims was to combine industry and culture. As a result, the top floor of this extremely hi-tech building incorporates a large auditorium. It was there that the festival took an exotic turn with the appearance of an ensemble of South American musicians, the “Ensamble Folklorico Latinoamericano,” the highlight of their performance being a rendition of Ariel Ramirez’s well-known “Misa Criolla.”
This, it was explained, was the first time that a pope had given his church permission to perform a mass in any language other than Latin. The ensemble, whose members include Israelis, also performed secular songs and accompanied themselves on authentic South American instruments including pan pipes, quena, flute, requinto, charango, guitar and bombo. They were joined by the Tel Aviv Collegium Singers.
All in all, the festival proved itself in that it attracted an international roster of top artists, as well as drawing a good mixture of Arabs and Jews to this historic Arab town.
All this was accomplished by one man, whose vision is inspiring people all over the country.
It is hardly surprising that Ashkar calls his multiple projects ‘Polyphony,’ which carries a suggestion of bringing different voices together.
“We have a number of different aims,” he explains when asked by The Jerusalem Report about his ultimate goals. “One is music appreciation and music education in kindergartens and elementary schools – to expose them to a wide variety of music: Israeli and Arab, as well as classical music. This is the way we bring together Arab and Jewish kids into a neutral space, using classical music as the focus of the curriculum. The program we started in Nazareth initially reached out to some 400 kids. Today this number is 10,000 kids, all over the country. We’re now working on a two-year program for kindergarten to sixth-grade students, where each age group has its own specific program,"he said.
"The other program is the conservatory, which has grown to about 70 students today, about 40 of whom are not from Nazareth. Nazareth is becoming a cultural center for the surrounding area’s villages. At some point, we had some Jewish students come into Nazareth because there’s great interest in what we’re offering. We are still bringing the best teachers in the country – for some of whom it is more convenient to come to Nazareth than to go further to Tel Aviv.
“We have started a youth musical ensemble," Ashkar continued saying. "One program has an equal number of Arab and Jewish students. They study not only their instruments but also how music and the arts shape the societies in which they live, and how it impacted societies in certain historical movements, such as during the Enlightenment. Music can be revolutionary, in that it encourages young people to ask questions. We are creating these programs along with Partnership, the Minerva Institute and the School of Cultural Studies, all from Tel Aviv University.
"The third component is dialogue and leadership. We have workshops and sessions where the students are given tools to communicate, to open up to each other, to have conversations with each other and encourage them to come up with ideas and projects which they themselves can apply," he said.
"The fourth project is the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, a professional, paid orchestra, which performs between four and six times a year. They have explanatory concerts for the musical appreciation groups, and perform concerts for the public. This summer we had our first international tour. We performed in Berlin, Hanover and Weissbarden; the concerts were all sold out. In Berlin, for example, 20,000 people came and there was standing room only. We were received with standing ovations; reviews in the media were wonderful. One critic wrote that the freshness of the interpretation brought satisfaction not only to the Arab community but also to the German one. I thought that was particularly flattering.
The orchestra contains the exceptionally talented students from the Conservatory who are between 15 and 18 years old and make up about half of the orchestra. The other half are really professional, mainly Jewish musicians. The interaction between the members is really exciting. The stability of the older Jewish musicians and the enthusiasm of the Arab youngsters make for a wonderful blend. It gives me hope that the music that we are offering can give not only an aesthetic dimension in young people’s education – [but that] it can also be a model for cooperation between the various groups of this country.”