A Piano Master Class with Saleem Abboud Ashkar

The aura around the Palestinian pianist Saleem Abboud Ashkar — performing, teaching and talking at Brown this weekend — suggests a major musical career coming into bloom, and at the same time a world-historical conversation being extended to a new generation.

Young Abboud Ashkar, just 31, could be the late Edward Said‘s successor in the exquisitely tantalizing dialog with the Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim. In counterpoint and close harmony, they are teasing out the implications of music for a world at war.

The must-see film version of the story is Paul Smaczny’s documentary on the Ramallah Concert of 2005.

The concert and the movie marked the triumph of Barenboim’s experimental leap with Said. What we saw and heard was a gorgeous collective of young Arab and Israeli all-stars — sharing music stands, probing identities, arguing politics and delivering masterpieces of the European repertoire in Spain, in Switzerland, on the West Bank.

The theory behind the brilliant execution could be fuzzy and subjective. Barenboim had major music directorships in Berlin and Chicago when he started this West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; it wasn’t as if he needed another job or another ensemble. Rather, he says, what the Middle East and the world needed was an exemplary working design of cultural and human interdependence. He doesn’t profess to lead an orchestra for peace. He says: “we are an orchestra against ignorance.”

Said, under a death sentence from leukemia when I last interviewed him, didn’t want to measure political effects. He saw the orchestra as a new frame for probing human differences and the epic struggles of his lifetime. The core problem, living with The Other, “has preoccupied me most of my life, intellectually and politically,” he reflected in our conversation:

I think it’s the main problem. I think fear and ignorance are the two main factors here–that somehow contact with the other will somehow threaten your identity; and second, I think we all have a mythological view of identity as a single thing that is basically intact and has to be protected. I think that’s simply nonsense. History teaches us that all of us are mixed, that every individual is made up of several maybe competing strands, and that is to be cherished. Rather than laundering out the strands that are competitive or contradictory, I think one ought to encourage them… well, in the way, in music, there’s this thing called counterpoint, where you manage the voices in a fugue and it makes it more interesting that there are more voices working together than less. And I think the same thing applies in society. And I think we’re moving gradually in that direction.

Edward Said, A Last Conversation… with Christopher Lydon

This is the conversation and the direction that Abboud Ashkar embodies on his second visit to Brown University. The first was with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra last December. Saturday evening he performed a giant one-man program of Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, Medtner and Schoenberg.

This afternoon he gave an interactive, two-piano master-class with five students playing Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert and Scriabin. And then he stretched out in a gabby ramble with me, touching on Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Proust, a great deal of Brahms, and the moral example of Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said in “engaging with life.”

He is a child of Nazareth, an Arab town in Israel, and of middle-class comfort — his father an engineer, his mother a school-teacher. His life resounds with Edward Said’s description of the Middle East as “a place of possibility — not because there are these separations,” as Said once said to me, “but because there are these mixtures, you know… the incredible variety of lives there, and cultures that it’s possible to excavate.”

I see that day to day. Israel is full of Arab music… Our music schools in Nazareth are full of Israeli teachers. My life is exactly that story, that possibility of integration and enrichment.

Saleem Abboud Ashkar, in conversation at Brown University. November 11, 2007

His heart is Palestinian, and it does not soar with hope at the prospect of the Annapolis conference called by the US Secretary of State, the accomplished pianist Condoleeza Rice:

I have no way out but to say: if her Brahms sounds like anything I’ve heard from her till now, I don’t want to hear it.

As an artist, I would like my art to be outside politics, but I am Palestinian and you can’t separate the two. The region I come from is very political. It’s impossible.

There is a clear moral solution, which is to give the Palestinian people the human right to live. The rest is complicated, but it’s soluble.

Saleem Abboud Ashkar, in conversation at Brown University. November 11, 2007

After an encore performance of a Brahms’ late, magnificent cluster of short piano pieces, Opus 116, I asked Abboud Ashkar if there was enough Brahms in the world to tame the savagery in the Middle East, in all of us. He thought probably not:

I think… without certain savage instincts in us, there would be no Brahms. [Music] doesn’t tame the animal; it includes the animal. For me, music is what includes everything else, including the ugliness in human nature…

But once we stop and give in, there is no meaning anymore. In every aspect of life we have to aim for the impossible. Sometimes aiming for the impossible is easier than aiming for the merely difficult. You almost know that it will not happen, and yet you try to make it happen. There’s something very inspiring about that. When you aim realistically for the difficult, it gets more difficult.

Saleem Abboud Ashkar, in conversation at Brown University. November 11, 2007

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