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Friday, November 17 Local

Musicians play for peace, one note at a time

Imagine: sitting in a room, surrounded by the other. Your entire life, you’ve heard myths about these people — who they are, what they believe. They frighten you, but also pique your curiosity because up close, they seem human, too.

Your nerves are eating at you, but you take out your violin to tune so its strings hum just right. A Schubert piece is on the agenda tonight, and you’ve traveled many a mile to play it.

You take a deep breath, then dive.

This isn’t a hypothetical: The members of Polyphony Youth Orchestra must overcome that kind of culture shock if they want to make music. Based in Israel, the ensemble is comprised equally of Jews and Arabs from across the country.

“Some of the Jewish kids meet an Arab kid for the first time in this orchestra, and the other way around. This is how rare the interaction is,” said Nabeel Abboud-Ashkar, co-founder and executive director of education at Polyphony.

For young Israeli musicians, Polyphony Youth Orchestra’s draw is clear: Founded in 2012, its players have already performed at some of the world’s most elite venues and events, including the Kennedy Center, Élysée Palace, Lincoln Center and Clinton Global Initiative.

On Saturday, their travels will take them to Greenwich. A quartet from the orchestra will appear at First Presbyterian Church, 1 West Putnam Ave., to play scores by Mozart and Dvořák, as well as Israeli music that has been adapted for classical instruments.

The program, which will run from 5 to 6:30 p.m., coincides with First Presbyterian’s “Who Is My Neighbor?” theme that is based on a New Testament parable about a man wounded on the roadside, in need of aid. The Rev. Sean Miller said the church’s leadership is “very inspired by the work” of Polyphony, which he views as reflective of his practitioners’ own mission of inclusivity and acceptance.

Call 203-869-8686 for ticket information.

While Polyphony’s programming is based in Israel, the foundation is headquartered in Cos Cob, with Greenwich residents Craig and Deborah Cogut at its helm. The youth orchestra is only one component of a much larger initiative that includes conservatories in Nazareth and Jaffa, a music appreciation program for kindergarteners and elementary students and a project-based professional chamber orchestra.

Polyphony players must put aside any preconceived notions of each to perform. Their passion for music does some of the work for them. The moment their instruments harmonize during a Mozart concerto, their mentalities start to change.

“You’ve already shown them that they have quite a lot in common,” said Abboud-Ashkar.

But the goals that Polyphony aims to achieve do not necessarily come swiftly, nor seamlessly.

“It’s not a magic pill,” Abboud-Ashkar cautioned. “It’s not something that you do over a weekend, or one week, and then you’re transformed.”

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Shahryar Oveissi, co-chair of Saturday’s concert and a Greenwich resident, has traveled with Abboud-Ashkar to attend concerts. A refugee of the Iranian Revolution himself, Oveissi has often spoken with Polyphony’s young musicians about how they adjust to an ethnically mixed orchestra.

“At the beginning, it’s awkward, and there’s that kind of built-in bias because of the media and other channels through their earlier childhood,” he said.

Abboud-Ashkar grew up in Nazareth, the so-called Arab-majority capital in Israel. There is no fully equipped concert hall, and no conservatory existed until he moved back in 2006.

And so Polyphony began not as a project to unite two ethnicities, but instead to fill a void.

“Classical music was not part of the local culture, was not part of the local tradition. And the best way to introduce and integrate foreign culture is if it comes from within the community … so that it can be accepted and not seen as something that’s imposed,” Abboud-Ashkar said.

Because Abboud-Ashkar is himself Arab, he said Polyphony grew naturally from the Arab community and then extended to Israeli Jews, which is a rarity in the country.

When he started his first conservatory, he commissioned Jewish teachers to drive an hour and a half from Tel Aviv. At the time, his choice of instructors was purely logistic. Other than him, there weren’t any local, qualified Arabs who could teach at the level he expected, he said.

A decade later, the organization has blossomed from a single conservatory serving 25 students to a massive foundation that tackles segregation around Israel. Last year, Polyphony hired its first Arab teacher, and Abboud-Ashkar has watched as many of his Arab students have gone onto careers in music. Some of them even play in Polyphony’s professional chamber orchestra.

But perhaps the most dramatic evidence of Polyphony’s growth is its music appreciation program. When it started in 2012, it was only at three Arab schools; now, it reaches 10,000 kids, 2,500 of whom are Jewish.

The multi-year curriculum culminates annually with an orchestra performance; for many of the students, and especially the Arab kids, it is their first time inside a concert hall. Because participants are bused to predominantly Jewish towns for an appropriate performance space, they interface with a community that they might not get to know otherwise.

Though Abboud-Ashkar’s vision has evolved to include more outreach since the Coguts became involved in 2011, the conservatories’ purpose remains the same: Providing quality instruction for dedicated musicians.

“The primary objective for the organization is to help train these children at the highest level,” said Oveissi. “These are not just ordinary children who are taking lessons.”

Ibrahim Boulos — one of the young men who will play with the quartet at First Presbyterian on Saturday — represents a success story for the conservatories. Boulos was born in Nazareth and began his training with Abboud-Ashkar at six years old. At 17, he has played the violin at concerts in Spain, Belgium, New York and Dallas, to name a few high-profile cities.

The other quartet members are equally impressive. Violinist Hisham Khoury is in Berlin at the Barenboim-Said Academy, while violist Ella Bukszpan is a student at Jerusalem Academy of Music and Dance. During her mandatory service in the Israeli Defense Forces, cellist Hagit Bar-Sella was part of a musicians’ unit that worked for social change; now, she has joined Bukszpan in Jerusalem.

The quartet all played with Polyphony Youth Orchestra, and Abboud-Ashkar said they embody the kind of peace and understanding Polyphony fosters.

“The relationship between them has developed ... and they really appreciate each other,” he said. “They work with each other very well. And when we’re not rehearsing, you wouldn’t feel like they’re coming from two different backgrounds.”

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