Galilee Chamber Orchestra (photo: courtesy of GCO)
On March 18, the Galilee Chamber Orchestra–Israel’s first professional orchestra of both Arab and Jewish musicians – makes its long-awaited U.S. debut at New York’s Carnegie Hall. Already a hit in Germany, the trailblazing ensemble and its Artistic Director, Saleem Ashkar, give the venue’s Annual Isaac Stern Memorial Concert, with a program showcasing the New York premiere of Luctus Profugis: elegy for the displaced by award-winning Tunisian-born composer Karim Al-Zand, whose work is new to the hall. This shares the program with Bruch’s First Violin Concerto, featuring superstar violinist Joshua Bell, and Haydn and Beethoven symphonies. Scheduled to air as part of WQXR’s “Carnegie Hall Live” series, the performance highlights the achievements of the orchestra and its parent organization, Polyphony Education, in harnessing the power of music to bring people together.
Polyphony Education and the Galilee Chamber Orchestra both came about through the efforts of Ashkar’s brother, Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar, a champion of community development who has since been recognized with a Charles Ansbacher “Music for All” award and Yoko Ono Lennon’s “Courage Award for the Arts.” He says:
“The Galilee Chamber Orchestra demonstrates a profound collaboration between people who would otherwise represent diametrically opposing narratives. It offers an example of the ways that music and the arts can serve as powerful tools, building trust and common ground where politicians and decision makers have failed. Its debut at Carnegie Hall is not only an incredible opportunity for a young and promising orchestra, but also a powerful statement of hope and peace that is much needed around the globe.”
As a former violinist of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, it was with support from its co-founder Daniel Barenboim that, in 2006, Abboud-Ashkar first launched a music program in his hometown of Nazareth, known as the “Arab capital of Israel.” The result was Polyphony Education, a nonprofit bridging the divide between Israel’s Arab and Jewish communities through classical music. By educating exceptional young Arab and Jewish musicians at Nazareth’s Polyphony Conservatory and more than 10,000 Arab and Jewish students each year at participating kindergartens and elementary schools throughout Israel, Polyphony offers a worldwide model for cooperation through cultural exchange, dialogue and partnership. Abboud-Ashkar explains:
“It became clear to us that our groundbreaking success had the potential to go beyond the local community and impact Israeli society as a whole – to help transcend long-existing barriers between the Arab and Jewish communities. We strive to to close educational gaps between the Arab and Jewish communities, provide equal opportunities, and create a space for collaboration and partnership that is based on mutual respect and trust.”
Founded by Polyphony in 2012, today Galilee Chamber Orchestra boasts equal numbers of Arab and Jewish musicians. Bringing together consummate artists from the nation’s leading orchestras and rising stars from Polyphony Conservatory, the orchestra has appeared at major festivals and venues in Israel and Europe, collaborating with such eminent soloists as Sir András Schiff and the late Lynn Harrell. Artistic Director Saleem Ashkar, who has also appeared with orchestras including the Vienna Philharmonic, London Symphony and Royal Concertgebouw, leads Galilee from both the keyboard and podium. Many of the orchestra’s members have gone on to win top prizes and take high-level orchestral positions in Europe and beyond, frequently through the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin.
In summer 2019, Galilee made debuts at the Berlin Konzerthaus, Rheingau Festival and other key German venues, inspiring glowing praise. “So much lightness, brilliance and polished dialogue! That Beethoven symphony could not have been played better!” marveled RBB Kultur Radio. “If you come merely expecting a social project, you are in for an astounding surprise. This was Beethoven at the highest level: tight, racy and dynamic,” agreed Frankfurter Rundschau. Of the orchestra’s rapport with Artistic Director Ashkar, who appeared as both conductor and piano soloist, Hannoversche Allgemeine observed: “One rarely experiences a soloist-conductor in such perfect unity with his orchestra. … This will stay long in our memory.”
Galilee was originally scheduled to make its North American debut in 2020, but this was postponed because of the pandemic. It is only now, then, that American audiences have the chance to see the groundbreaking orchestra for themselves. Led once again by Ashkar, the upcoming Isaac Stern Memorial Concert introduces New Yorkers to Tunisian-born Canadian-American composer Karim Al-Zand (b. 1970), whose works draw inspiration from such varied sources such as graphic art, myths and fables, folk music, film, spoken word, jazz and his own Middle Eastern heritage. Although new to Carnegie Hall, Al-Zand is already the recipient of several national awards, including the “Arts and Letters Award in Music” from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His Luctus Profugis: elegy for the displaced (2016), a lament for string orchestra and percussion, was inspired by the current European migrant and refugee crisis. After a performance of the piece last year, St. Louis’s KDHX reported: “There was not a soul in the audience who was not captivated by this subtle, sensitive work.”
Joined by soloist Joshua Bell, whose numerous honors include a Grammy Award, Mercury Music Prize and induction into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame, Ashkar and the orchestra juxtapose Al-Zand’s work with the beloved First Violin Concerto by Bruch, the German Romantic whose compositions include his famous cello setting of the Jewish Yom Kippur prayer Kol Nidre. The program is bookended by their accounts of two Classical favorites, Haydn’s “Fire” Symphony and Beethoven’s witty and exuberant First.
Three days after their Carnegie Hall concert, Ashkar and the orchestra look forward to making their Canadian debut at Toronto’s Koerner Hall.