This is, indeed, a celebratory time of year. The Jewish majority in this country has had its Festival of Lights, while Christians are currently gearing up for Christmas. All of which makes it an opportune calendar slot to address musical material of a religious nature.
That is precisely what will be going on in Nazareth between December 16-18, when the third edition of the annual Liturgical Music Festival takes place. The event is being touted as “a weekend of musical peaks” and the programming, courtesy of Nabil Abboud Ashkar, the founder artistic director, implies there is some collateral for the apogee claim.
Liturgical music comes in all shapes and forms. Like any genre, in any discipline the world over, the creative end product takes on local colors, seasoning and the personal baggage of the human conduit of expression.
In Nabeel Hayek’s case that proffers a multihued tapestry of sounds and dynamics which, no doubt, will come across on December 17 (11:30 a.m.), when the 20-year-old pianist plays the instrumental accompaniment to soprano Nour Darwish at the 19th-century Anglican Church in Nazareth, in an intimate program of Baroque and Romantic works. The repertoire for the occasion is as about variegated as you can get within the varied stratified confines of classical Christian liturgical scores.
The proceedings open with Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” BWV 998: Aria, a delicate piece that should set the frisson bar at a lofty notch, before moving swiftly onto perennial favorite Bach’s Ave Maria prelude with words by Charles Gounod. The programmatic pace never lets up, as Hayek and Darwish continue with The Blute nur, du liebes herz! (Just bleed, dear heart!) section of Bach’s grandly stirring St. Matthew Passion.
The diverse concert order of play incorporates all kinds of crowd-pleasing nuggets, such as Rejoice Greatly from Handel’s Messiah, Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem aria from the St. Paul oratorio, an arrangement by late 19th- and early 20th-century composer-pianist Giovanni Sgambati of Dance of the Blessed Spirits from Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice opera, and Crucifixus from Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle (Little solemn mass).
The classical fare will be complemented by some more contemporary material, including a couple of Christmas carols – Silent Night and O Holy Night – something from Tinsel Town in the form of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, first made popular by Judy Garland in MGM’s 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, and Arabic hymn Ya Mariam El Bekr (Oh, Virgin Mary).
Hayek appears to be well primed to take on the aforementioned eclectic lineup, and plenty more. Much of that is down to his years of study with the Polyphony Foundation conservatory, in Nazareth, cofounded by internationally renowned violinist-conductor Nabil Abboud-Ashkar in 2006.
The foundation’s declared mission is “to promote understanding and collaboration among Arab and Jewish communities in Israel and, through a common passion for music and shared accomplishment, to develop a cadre of future leaders committed to advancing civil society.” The organization is also behind the Liturgical Music Festival.
If Hayek’s achievements, thus far, are anything to go by the music school is certainly doing well on the artistic front. Since graduating from the conservatory, he has come under the learned aegis of evergreen octogenarian pianist, conductor and educator Prof. Aryeh Vardi at the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at the University of Tel Aviv, and is also benefiting from the valuable tutelage of world-famous American pianist and conductor Murray Perahia. He has also acquitted himself with distinction in the rough and tumble unforgiving world of musical contests, placing second and third in 2013 and 2015 editions of the prestigious Pnina Salzman Competition for young pianists, and winning the Piano Forever competition, for pianists from all over the country ages 6-28, in 2017.
But it is his Polyphony teacher whom he credits with setting him on the road to serious musical endeavor. “I studied with Ron Trachtman for eight years,” says Hayek. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am today.” The young pianist says he also gained a lot from the unique ambiance and the company he kept at the conservatory. “It was very interesting to study alongside Arab friends and relatives.”
Hayek’s musical pathway did not, in fact, get off to the best of starts although that proved to be only a brief hiccup in his professional trajectory. “I began on violin, at the age of five,” he notes, adding that the groundwork for his connection with Polyphony was then, albeit indirectly, set in place. “I studied with Nabil Abboud-Ashkar, but I stopped after about a month. I just didn’t connect with the violin.”
Thankfully, some parental wisdom came to the rescue. “My mother asked me if I wanted to try a different instrument and, for some reason, I chose the piano,” Hayek recalls. It also helped that he had some hands-on support at home. “My mother taught me for a year and a half. She’s not a musician but she has a good background in music.” When he was seven, Hayek enrolled at Polyphony and the rest is his evolving, successful history.
Mind you, he wasn’t immediately sold on a career as a concert pianist from the word go. “I was interested in mathematics and other things but I knew I wanted to be an artist in some field,” he says.
His career path became clear by the time he was 15, and he developed a particular interest in Romantic and post-Romantic Era music, even though he has managed to keep his options open. “Schumann is one of my favorites, and Brahms, but I like all sorts of composers and music. I like Stravinsky, and also [pioneering 20th-century French composer Olivier] Messiaen and [contemporary avant-garde Hungarian composer György Sándor] Ligeti.” Hayek clearly embraces broad swathes of musical thought, and it should be interesting to see how things pan out for him in the years to come.
For now he is looking forward to next week’s musical rendezvous with Darwish. “I’ve known Nour for a few years but we only got to work together last June,” he says. “I enjoyed it a lot. Nour is really good. We work well together.”
The Liturgical Music Festival curtain-raiser finds Abboud-Ashkar conducting the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, with vocalists from the Israel Opera, performing Beethoven’s Symphony No. 1 and Christ on the Mount of Olives oratorio. Elsewhere over the three days, the public can enjoy a rendition of Brahms’s A German Requiem, while the artistic director’s brother, conductor-pianist Saleem Abboud-Ashkar takes center stage for the closing slot that also features the Tel Aviv Collegium Singers and the Barrocade - The Israel Baroque Collective ensemble, as well Israel Opera vocalists. The program for the all-Vivaldi festival finale includes the Concerto for Two Violins in A minor, Cessate cantata and the magnificent Gloria in D Major.
And anyone looking to make a day or two of it can also get into the Yuletide spirit by joining guided tours of the Christmassy locale, and enjoy some seasonally priced accommodation offers.
For tickets and more information: https://liturgicalnazareth.co.il/