Living voices in harmony with Saleem Abboud Ashkar

The 45-year-old Nazarene-born, Berlin-based internationally acclaimed pianist-conductor happily lives and creates in both worlds, and also does his bit to introduce others to the beauty.

 PIANIST-CONDUCTOR Saleem Abboud Ashkar  and the Polyphony project bring together young Israeli and Palestinian instrumentalists.  (photo credit: LUDMIELA JERMEIS)
PIANIST-CONDUCTOR Saleem Abboud Ashkar and the Polyphony project bring together young Israeli and Palestinian instrumentalists.
(photo credit: LUDMIELA JERMEIS)

One of the contrasting features between Western classical music and Arabic music is the element of harmony. While it is part and parcel of Western sounds across a range of disciplines, including jazz, it simply does not exist in the Arabic sphere. 

That contrariness doesn’t bother Saleem Abboud Ashkar a single jot. The 45-year-old Nazarene-born, Berlin-based internationally acclaimed pianist-conductor happily lives and creates in both worlds, and also does his bit to introduce others to the beauty, joys and emotive splendor that music from the East and West have to offer.

Much of that is facilitated through the Polyphony project, based in Nazareth, which brings together young Israeli and Palestinian instrumentalists from both sides of that cultural divide. That also provides the conceptual backdrop to Ashkar’s forthcoming appearance on the last day of the Abu Ghosh Festival, currently taking place at the Yitzhak Rabin Center in Tel Aviv through to September 26. The festival’s regular Abu Ghosh venue, the Kiryat Ye’arim Church, is undergoing renovation work. 

Typically, the program for the day covers diverse tracts of musical endeavor kicking off at 2:30 p.m. as the Eldrawish Music Ensemble of the Galilee takes the audience on something of a magical mystery tour of Sufi music. The concert features an instrumental quartet, alongside vocalist Sheikh Mwafak Shahen, while dancer Khaled Abu Ali will, no doubt, get up to all manner of whirling.

Ashkar’s writing skills will be on display at 5:30 p.m., in the Nostalgia and Memories – Music with a French Fragrance concert. The slot is described as a “concert with a 20th century European ambience: French chansons, and Arab poetry composed by pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar, in the spirit of the era,” featuring songs in French, Arabic and Hebrew. Soprano Nour Darwish will be front and center, backed by a string quartet of Arab and Jewish members of the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, as they work their way through a varied repertoire of works by Debussy, Fauré, late Romantic Era-composer Henri Duparc, Ravel and Scriabin, as well as the fourth movement from Schubert’s Trout Quintet.

The concert closes with Kurt Weill’s 1934 number Youkali, and the world premiere of the Ashkar’s Songs for Soprano and String Quartet five-parter, featuring Nabeel Haik on piano.

The festival will go out with a veritable bang, when Ashkar conducts The Galilee Chamber Orchestra and its 36 Jewish and Arab members, which operates under the aegis of Polyphony. Prior to its departure for the United States, where it is due to appear at New York’s Carnegie Hall, the ensemble will perform a powerful program with Pergolesi’s richly stirring “Stabat Mater,” followed by the sumptuously lyrical Serenade for Strings by Edward Elgar.

To say Ashkar is happy to be conducting the work by Italian Baroque composer, violinist and organist Giovanni Battista Pergolesi would be to err heavily on the side of understatement. “His ‘Stabat Mater’ is one of the most beautiful pieces of music humankind ever breathed into existence,” he declares. “It is so exciting to be able to perform it at the festival.”

For Ashkar the thrill factor is not just a derivative of what he will be presenting to the festivalgoers, but also about the company he will be keeping on stage. “It is going to be amazing to perform ‘Stabat Mater’ with this bunch of people. The Galilee Chamber Orchestra is amazing, and I chose two fantastic singers for the performance – [soprano] Tali Ketzef and [mezzo-soprano] Rachel Frenkel. It is a great joy to work with them.”

Still, there is a slight damper on the proceedings. “It would have been moving to do it in Jerusalem, but it will be wonderful to do it in Tel Aviv.” The former was something of a geographic faux pas. In fact, Ashkar was referring to Abu Ghosh, the festival’s home for the past 64 years but, I think we can forgive him for that, after all it is on the way to Jerusalem, when coming from the west.

Ashkar is also happy with the range of styles, genres and cultural baggage encapsulated in the festival denouement. He says it fits the bill on all levels. “That is what Polyphony, in essence, is also about – no demarcation lines. Anything that is beautiful and elevates us to a higher plane is fine by me,” he observes. “There are enough things, these days, that drag us down.” 

That is a welcome aspiration, and one we could all benefit from. But, at the end of the day, Ashkar believes that if he and his cohorts are not doing their job, to the best of their ability, any lofty ideals that may be sewn into the project seams aren’t going to be worth too much.

“I always say the message [of unity] is important right up to the moment when we play the first note of a concert, and it becomes important again straight after the end of the performance. But, during the concert, there is only one thing – the music. And we have to strive to convey the music on the highest possible level.”

Even so, there are logistics and machinations, that are inherent to the Polyphony venture, that pose challenges that, perhaps, other musical bodies do not have to grapple with.

“It is not easy,” Ashkar states. “You choose the people you work with based on two objectives. First, you want to work with the best musicians you can find. On the other hand, you still want to create, within this system which is on the highest standard, the fusion of forces and the projection of the vision.”

That, naturally, references the attainment of interpersonal harmony between people of differing ethnic, religious and cultural backdrops. “You also want to educate a generation of musicians from Nazareth and around Israel, in terms of acceptance, that it is really possible,” Ashkar observes. “It is not just a gimmick [of Arabs and Jews making music together]. It is challenging.”

It may be a tough ask but, as the members of the Rabin Center audience will see, the fruits of the Polyphony labors are there for the picking. That, Ashkar feels, is an even more important and precious goal, given the circumstances in which humankind currently finds itself.

“What we always took for granted has been taken away from us,” he says, noting the COVID-19 social and personal fallout. “There is an important lesson to be learned here. It is a very painful situation.”

Ashkar says the official virus-related guidelines left their mark on his co-professionals. “Lots of musicians played the same works, over and over again, on all sorts of digital platforms. It became more business than art. But I think we have to consider what it means to return to the stage, and performing live. We have to think about what it means to stand there [on the stage] and to communicate with people in an immersive way.”

The conductor-pianist hopes that his fellow artists will take a step back and consider the deeper importance of rendering the beauty of music.

“We, musicians, were used to flying somewhere, checking into a hotel, doing a rehearsal or two, and a sound check, and then a concert, and then moving on to the next stop. We have to reevaluate what it means to play music for a live audience, and not through the damn computer. I hope this leads us all to a better place.”

Time, of course, will be the judge of that lofty objective. For now, the Abu Ghosh faithful can settle into their padded Rabin Center seats to enjoy a concert of sumptuous sounds, no doubt, infused by newfound post-pandemic intent.

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