Galilee Orchestra Joint Project of Israeli Arab, Jewish Musicians
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Galilee Orchestra Joint Project of Israeli Arab, Jewish Musicians

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Shortly after the Israeli-Palestinian peace process got underway, composer Nabil Azzam met with Yasser Arafat and offered the Palestinian leader a new national anthem for his nascent Palestinian Authority.

The anthem, the Christian Arab from Nazareth proposed, would include strains from Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem, to symbolize the desired amity between the two people.

The fate of Azzam’s anthem is uncertain, but his composition can well stand as a metaphor for a musical life shaped equally by Jewish and Arab influences.

Much of Azzam’s career has been intertwined with that of his friend and mentor, Moshe Lazar, starting in Israel and continuing in Los Angeles, where both men now live.

Born into a highly musical family, Azzam first met Lazar at Tel Aviv University in the early 1970s, where Lazar, a Holocaust survivor, had recently been named dean of the School of Visual and Performing Arts.

One of the school’s affiliates was the Rubin Academy of Music, where Lazar took note of the talented Azzam, the academy’s first Arab student.

In that potentially uncomfortable position, Azzam encountered prejudice against Arabs generally, but “personally, I was treated fairly,” he said.

His attitude then, and applied since, was “to be true to myself, to respect myself as I respect others, to use humor and to use truth.”

While studying violin and conducting, Azzam became the first student to head the academy’s orchestra in off-campus public performances. With Lazar’s encouragement, the orchestra, under its youthful conductor, gave its first recital in Nazareth.

After graduating from Tel Aviv University and the Rubin Academy, Azzam founded the Nazareth Conservatory of Music, with a mixed Jewish and Arab faculty.

Teachers and students occasionally performed with musicians from nearby kibbutzim.

“It was a beautiful relationship,” said Azzam. “If you closed your eyes, you didn’t know who were the Jewish instrumentalists, and who were the Arabs.”

Azzam resumed his studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and was awarded a master’s degree in musicology in 1982.

Shortly after his graduation, Azzam was offered a fellowship at University of California, Los Angeles, and moved here with his wife and two small children.

While earning his doctoral degree in ethnomusicology at UCLA, Azzam began to develop his own style of composition, which melded Middle Eastern and classical Western music and instruments.

As a performer, he extended his range from classical violinist to mastery of the oud, a guitar-shaped stringed instrument and ancestor of the lute.

When Azzam and his family arrived in Los Angeles, they were met by Lazar. The former Tel Aviv University dean had preceded his student’s trans-Atlantic journey and was now chairman of the comparative literature program at University of Southern California

During the past few years, the two men have continued their friendship and shared their common interest in Sephardi music.

Lazar is researching and writing a massive 16-volume series on Sephardi culture and history, while Azzam’s composition, “Variations on Sephardic Melodies,” was performed last week at UCLA.

Azzam is now at work on a comic operetta, “The Man and the Rooster,” featuring a talking rooster that always speaks the truth and casts a satirical eye on the foibles of Arabs and Jews. The finale introduces a new dance, dubbed the dora, a combination of the Palestinian dabke and the Israeli hora.

In 1995, Azzam returned to Nazareth and formed the 50-piece Galilee Orchestra. Some of the musicians are Arabs, but most are Jewish immigrants from Russia.

Its aim is to foster a new genre of music, in which Middle Eastern compositions are performed by a full symphony orchestra, Azzam said.

The Galilee Orchestra made its debut in late 1995 at the Frank Sinatra House in Nazareth and was promised future financial support by Israel’s Ministry of Culture. However, funding has been frozen since the advent of the Netanyahu government last year, Lazar said.

Both Azzam and Lazar are now trying to raise funds in Los Angeles by establishing an American friends support group for the Nazareth Galilee Orchestra. They hope to enlist the backing of prominent personalities in the Arab and Jewish communities.

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