The power of liturgical music

The power of music to bridge ideological or religious chasms is not a new idea.

The power of liturgical music  (photo credit: LUDMIELA JERMEIS)
The power of liturgical music
(photo credit: LUDMIELA JERMEIS)
The power of music to bridge ideological or religious chasms is not a new idea. Back in the late 17th century, English playwright William Congreve noted that “music has charms to soothe a savage breast,”  and that it “has the power to enchant even the roughest of people.”
That is an ethos wholly embraced and promoted by the Nazareth-based Polyphony Foundation, which sets out to bridge divides between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel, through the medium of music. The idea is also to disseminate that message to the outside world, too, and to offer a template for cultural exchanges, dialogue and partnership.
That sentiment also runs through Liturgical Music Festival, which will take place in Nazareth December 12 to 14. The festival, which was initiated by classical violinist Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, who is also a driving force behind Polyphony, will offer classical music lovers of various stripes a right royal feast of sumptuous works. The program includes a performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor, with 85 vocalists and instrumentalists on stage at the same time, Benjamin Britten’s popular Ceremony of Carols, and a special South American Christmas Holiday Concert featuring folklore compositions. Compositions by Bach, Brahms, Fauré, Purcell, Tallis and Elgar are also in the liturgical repertoire mix.
The entertainment will be provided by a top-notch cast of professionals from here and abroad, taking in the Hannover Collegium Vocale Choir, the Galilee Chamber Orchestra, the Tel Aviv Collegium Singers, the Israeli Brass Quintet, and the Latin-American Folk Ensemble, as well as several leading Israeli soloists.
In fact, the new venture is something of a family business, with Ashkar’s brother, pianist-conductor Saleem Abboud Ashkar, also very much in the fray.
“My brother and I have been developing the musical tradition of Nazareth for quite a few years now,” says the pianist from his home in Berlin. “Polyphony has, for over 10 years, been developing the conservatory [of music in Nazareth], the programs for presenting classical music at schools, on all sorts of levels. There are already several generations of musicians who completed the conservatory studies.”
Germany-based Ashkar is an internationally renowned pianist in his own right, and has made a name for himself in recent years for his renditions of Beethoven sonatas, including recordings of all 32 sonatas for the Decca label. Today, Ashkar divides his time between Israel and Germany, with much of his waking hours here devoted to managing and directing the Galilee Chamber Orchestra. The ensemble comprises 32 young Arab and Jewish musicians.
“The idea [behind the orchestra] was to create a musical ecosystem,” he explains. “You can’t teach children without developing an audience. You can’t teach children if they don’t have an objective. And you have to bring in good soloists for them to listen to. You can’t teach them in a vacuum.”
Ashkar says that one good thing leads to another, and that the ecosystem in question is a self-nurturing entity.
“All these families, of hundreds of children who learn to play music, their parents are an audience, and audience that is hungry and to see and to hear the music. It’s not that, say, the mother played piano and now the child plays piano. The parents don’t know anything about music, but their kid plays. You are cultivating a first generation of musicians. But to teach a child, you have to speak to his or her parents first. That’s the way it goes.”
Ashkar sees the ensemble as a powerful social or, if you like, a sociopolitical tool.
“One of the greatest things about the orchestra is that you have people who come from Tel Aviv to Nazareth to hear a concert, and from other places,” he notes. “It generates social-cultural-political movement which is different from the other reality in Israel. What other interfaces do we [Arabs] have with the Israeli environment? Is that about Jews coming into Nazareth to do some inexpensive shopping, or eat hummus? We do a lot more than that. And there should be projects developing across the board, not just in music.”
Coming up, Ashkar received a considerable helping hand from iconic conductor Zubin Mehta, who arranged for Ashkar to perform Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra when the budding musician was just 17. And both Ashkar siblings gained valuable musical and life experience as members of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, cofounded by legendary pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim as a workshop for Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians.
“I learned a lot from that about music and leadership,” says Ashkar. “It was a life-changing experience, which also showed me the power of music, and how it can impact on people.”
The inaugural Liturgical Music Festival promises to provide a varied quality stretch of musical fare, and at eminently suitable venues, including the Salesian Church and The Maronite Church, as well as the Industrial Park Auditorium.
For tickets and more information: *9066 and