Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, one of the founders of the Polyphony Conservatory.
Nabeel Abboud Ashkar, one of the founders of the Polyphony Conservatory.

Arab and Jewish musicians find common purpose in Polyphony Quartet

Nabeel Abboud Ashkar likes to tell the story about the time his father went out to get the family’s old, dilapidated car repaired and instead came home with a piano.

An engineer with a deep love of European classical music, Dad had turned their house in Nazareth into an oasis brimming with Brahms and Tchaikovsky.

“One day he goes to fix the car, which was always breaking down, and he met a Russian immigrant who asked if he wanted to make a trade,” Abboud Ashkar, 41, said recently in a phone call from Nazareth. “So we grew up in a house with an old Russian piano.”

Like a modern fable or parable, that impromptu exchange changed the course of Abboud Ashkar’s life, though he didn’t take up the instrument. That was his older brother, Saleem, now a world-class concert pianist living in Berlin.

“I had a slightly different path,” Abboud Ashkar said.

Indeed, the Israeli Arab was one of the founders of the Polyphony Conservatory in Nazareth, an initiative that promotes coexistence in Israel and the West Bank by bringing Arabs and Jews together to play music.

A string quartet featuring the first graduates of Polyphony will perform a program of classical music and Jewish and Arab folk tunes on Monday, Nov. 18 at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto and Tuesday, Nov. 19 at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon, following on the heels of three concerts in Los Angeles. After the music, there will be Q&A sessions with Abboud Ashkar, an accomplished violinist in his own right, and the musicians: Edi Kotlyar and Yamen Saadi (violin), Yoav Yatzkin (viola) and Mahdi Saadi (cello). The Marin Interfaith Council is also a co-sponsor.

“This group is the first to go through the program, and they’re incredibly good,” Abboud Ashkar said. “They’re the best example of young people breaking all these barriers that their environment puts up.”

In many ways, Polyphony is fruit from a garden cultivated by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a 20-year-old ensemble founded by Argentine Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said, the late Palestinian American Columbia University professor. Abboud Ashkar was a member of that Europe-based orchestra — which is made up of musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories and other parts of the Middle East, and has been honored by the United Nations as a vehicle of cultural understanding — before deciding to return home to Nazareth to start his own project.

They’re the best example of young people breaking all these barriers that their environment puts up.

With help from Barenboim to get seed money, he launched the Barenboim-Said Conservatory in 2006. It started with 25 students, and the teachers were four Jewish musicians who commuted 90 minutes each way from Tel Aviv.

The program was of great value in an Arab city with few enrichment opportunities for young people, a fact not lost on Jewish American social entrepreneurs Craig and Deborah Cogut when they met Abboud Ashkar in 2011.

The following year, they created the Polyphony Foundation, which has increased the reach of Abboud Ashkar’s vision.

“Without their support and guidance, none of this would have been possible,” he said. “They were there on so many levels and seeing things I didn’t see before. They were instrumental in making something beyond just a music school.”

Among the Polyphony Foundation’s numerous programs are music appreciation classes that reach about 10,000 Jewish and Arab elementary school students in the Nazareth area, Abboud Ashkar said.

There’s also the Polyphony Youth Orchestra (which brings together the best young Jewish and Arab musicians for intensive training in music, conflict resolution and leadership) and the Polyphony Orchestra (a professional ensemble that is mostly Jewish but working toward a better balance).

“When we started the orchestra, we didn’t have enough Arab musicians to play to our standards,” Abboud Ashkar said, noting that the orchestra is scheduled to play Carnegie Hall next year. “Rather than compromise the quality, we determined to speed the training of the Arab kids.”

If a goal of fostering coexistence via music seems utopian, Abboud Ashkar is no starry-eyed dreamer. He said Polyphony is a direct response to the Israeli government’s under-investment in Nazareth and an environment in which “people give up on their leaders” because change never comes. Moreover, he added, polarization between Jews and Arabs is at a very high level, and there is a lot of “mistrust, fear and hatred.”

But with Polyphony, those involved “start to be more active and responsible, and that’s the idea of civil society.”

Polyphony Quartet

7:30 p.m. Monday Nov. 18 at Oshman Family JCC, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto. $15-$20. (650) 223-8692. Also 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 19 at Congregation Kol Shofar,  215 Blackfield Drive, Tiburon. Free. (415) 388-1818.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.