A Trailblazing Musician with a Mind of His Own

A Trailblazing Musician with a Mind of His Own

 

Prof. Taiseer Elias didn’t set out to become a cultural ambassador, but his passion and mastery of the oud – a musical instrument used in much of the Middle East – is doing just that. Elias, who has a PhD in musicology from Hebrew University and teaches in Bar-Ilan University’s music department, has almost single-handedly brought the oud to the forefront of the Israeli and world classical music scene, entertaining Jewish and Arab audiences alike.

A musician with a true mind of his own, among his accomplishments, Elias was one of the founders of the annual Oud Festival in Jerusalem; his performing group, Bustan Abraham, brings together both Jewish and Arab musicians; and Elias has accomplished a musical feat entirely unique: adapting the oud from an instrument used primarily for accompanying traditional Arab music (“a kind of bad pop music,” Elias says) to one that can be used as an integral part of Western classical music.

To wit, there are now concertos for oud and symphonic orchestra; concertinos for oud, piano and cello; and many more, some written by Elias himself and others written especially for him by both Israeli and international composers.

The 52-year-old Elias grew up and still lives in the Israel Arab community of Shfaram between Haifa and Nazareth. He first started studying Western classical violin and was accepted into Jerusalem’s prestigious Academy of Music and Dance. After receiving his PhD, he returned to found the institution’s Eastern Music department; he is now the chairman and he also teaches theory, violin and oud there.

Elias has received numerous prizes; perhaps the most prestigious was in 2008 when he was awarded the Frank Pelig Prize for outstanding musicians. “It was the first and only time an Arab musician received this prize,” he says. More recently, he was invited to join Yitzhak Perlman as a master teacher in the iconic violinist’s Perlman Music Program. Perlman described him as “an extraordinary teacher [who] raises the level wherever he happens to be; he makes us all better.”

When he first started playing the oud, there were no conservatories or professional teachers for the instrument.

So his mastery of the instrument was essentially an extension of what he’d been learning on the violin. That’s when he realized that there was no reason the oud couldn’t be brought into classical music too. From there, he added other musical cultures: jazz, Flamenco, Indian.

Despite their very different origins, Arab and Western music actually share many attributes, Elias explains. For example, concurrence and non-concurrence between elements such as pitch and density “exist in all musical cultures. This creates emotional excitement.” Another shared example is deviation from expectation or a sudden change in tempo or intonation. “That is, when the music doesn’t go where we expect it to go. That creates tension, but also excitement as well.”

What occurs in music also applies to relationships between people. Just as in music, “people who believe in coexistence between cultures and who are open-minded can see the uniqueness in each culture, while at the same time finding the unifying and universal elements,” Elias says. “Music can tear down walls of hatred and misunderstanding. The musicians in Bustan Abraham and I became very close friends. We visit each other in our homes. When we are together, we don’t think about being Jews and Arabs.”

Such boundaries are also banished from his classes at Bar-Ilan, “Even when I teach about Arab music, I always relate it to other cultures,” he explains. “So I make references to western music. That keeps it interesting.” His students clearly appreciate it. “They really want to learn and, as a result, we have some very deep interactions. I feel proud being able to contribute to my students’ improvement.”

Elias’s passion for cross-cultural music had an added benefit: it was through Bustan Abraham that he met his wife. “She is a great singer and we collaborated together in the group and on TV,” he says.

Music seems to run in his family. Elias’s eldest daughter is an award-winning pianist who has performed with the Haifa Symphony Orchestra (“you can see her on YouTube,” the proud father says) and his 14-year-old son is a violinist who has performed as a soloist with the Camerata Orchestra.” Not surprisingly, Elias says that his happiest times are “when I’m in great harmony with my family.”

That clearly applies to the greater family of all humankind.

 

 

Last modified: 03/04/2017