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How Daniel Barenboim's orchestra of Israeli and Arab musicians is faring in the current political climate

How Daniel Barenboim's orchestra of Israeli and Arab musicians is faring in the current political climate
Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the 2018 Salzburg Festival. (Monika Rittershaus / West-Eastern Divan)

“Classical music is a very important element in a human being’s life,” stresses Daniel Barenboim, who is sitting in his office at the Staatsoper unter der Linden , Berlin State Opera, which he has headed since 1992. The Berlin marathon is underway outdoors on this fine mid-September day. A large, unlighted cigar and ashtray are near at hand.

“Music develops the brain for the simple reason that whenever you play a piece, if you are aware of everything, you learn something new,” he says. “But every day I have to start from scratch, because the sound is gone. And this is the greatest gift one can have. If you are a real musician you can never be bored.”

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He continues: “Classical music is like a mountain; you can’t see all the sides at one time. Sometimes something is very insignificant; sometimes it’s more important. Tomorrow, therefore, I know a little more.”

Barenboim is a force of nature who has been moving mountains as a pianist, conductor, philosopher of music, administrator and fearless political gadfly for a very long time.

His West-Eastern Divan Orchestra formed in 1999 to train young Israeli and Arab musicians together. And right now he is moving WEDO across America. It arrives Sunday night to make its belated Southern California debut at Walt Disney Concert Hall.

This may sound grandiose, but unless I am missing something, the Divan is the best orchestra and the most significant cultural orchestra to have yet performed in Los Angeles.

The brainchild of Barenboim and literary scholar Edward Said, the orchestra began as an experiment in Weimar, Germany. It was meant to be a musical bridge across one of the most pressing cultural and political divides in contemporary life that only two unlikely collaborators could devise.

We cannot play in any country in the region. We cannot play in Palestine. We cannot play in Israel. Forget about Syria


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Barenboim was born in Argentina, grew up in Israel and, as a piano prodigy, was on the world stage in his teens. He has since become a renowned pianist and conductor, who was the music director of the Orchestre de Paris and Chicago Symphony before moving to Berlin. He holds both Israeli and Palestinian passports.

Said, who died in 2003, was born in Palestine, educated in Cairo and trained as a pianist. He had a career that included his groundbreaking cultural study, “Orientalism,” membership in the Palestinian National Council and professorship at Columbia University. On top of all that, he was music critic for the Nation magazine.

After a chance meeting in a hotel lobby, Barenboim and Said found that they shared a worldview, an understanding that accommodated music, culture and the Middle East. To the astonishment of just about everyone, they became fast friends.

The Divan was to have been but a single summer workshop in Weimar, which Barenboim explains, represents “the very best and the very worst of German history. It was the city of Goethe, Schiller and many musicians. But it is only about three miles away from Buchenwald, the German concentration camp.”

The orchestra took its name from Goethe’s Persian-inspired book of poetry, “West-Eastern Divan.” The young players were invited from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordon, Egypt, Iran and elsewhere. “Sixty-five percent had never played in an orchestra,” Barenboim recounts, and some had never even heard an orchestra live.

It was to be as much a social and political as well as musical experiment. “The non-musical idea behind the orchestra,” Barenboim says, “was the idea of getting to know the other, not necessarily of dialogue and certainly not of peace, but to learn and to accept the logic of the narrative of the other. They don’t necessarily agree about that narrative, but they have to have respect for it. This is basically all I expect.”

That his expectation was possible, Barenboim continues, became clear when the musicians were invited to visit Buchenwald. “I said to Edward, ‘You are the only one who can convince the Arabs.’ Except for one, we all went. As we came out, one Syrian musician said to me, ‘I never realized, but I now realize with horror, that if we, the Arabs, had been in Germany in the 1940s, we would have also ended up here.”

The experiment was enough of a success to be repeated a second summer and then find an annual summer residence in Seville, with support from the Spanish government. The vast majority of players returned year after year along with increasingly promising new ones who came from an increasingly wide range of countries, from Spain to Africa. Members of the Staatskapelle, the opera house’s orchestra, initially served in the principal chairs and mentored the students, the most gifted of whom were invited to Berlin to further their studies with their mentors.

Within less than a decade, WEDO had become a world-class orchestra that toured widely, played the major European festivals and recorded. Some players found prestigious positions, one being Ramón Ortega, the new principal oboist for the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Another, violinist and journalist Nabih Bulos, who joined the Divan in 2001, is now The Times’ Beirut bureau chief.

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In 2007, Barenboim said in an interview that WEDO was the most important thing in his career. I asked him whether he still feels that way.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” he says.

“When it started, after the first summer, Edward said to me, ‘You will see, we will learn more from them than they from us.’ If I stand in front of the Staatskapelle in Berlin and I say to the oboe to play a phrase in such and such a way, he can do it.”

Barenboim continues: “In the Divan, they ask why. And therefore it forces me to try to understand why I want something in a certain way. I can teach them. I can inspire them. I can animate them. But they are the ones who make the sound. Conductors have to remember that. And the musicians also have to remember that they don’t just sit there and wait to be animated. They have to contribute. The Divan does that like no other orchestra in the world.”

Beaming, Barenboim says he is just as happy with the human as well as musical results. But politically, the Divan’s utopian mission has proved much less feasible.

“We have seven Iranians. Look at the lack of relations between Iran and Israel. Iranian musicians come here and make music with Israeli musicians, and visa versa, and they see that the other is not a monster as they have been told. That changes their view of things,” he says.

“But unfortunately it has had zero influence on the people in the region. We cannot play in any country in the region. We cannot play in Palestine. We cannot play in Israel. Forget about Syria.”

In July he wrote an op-ed for Haaretz that the Tel Aviv newspaper gave the headline: “Today, I Am Ashamed to Be an Israeli.”

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“There are many aspects of the conflict that are not symmetrical,” Barenboim tells me of his current view of the political situation. “Israel is a very strong country. The Palestinians have been occupied. They’re not even a state. The world talks about a two-state solution, but I ask, ‘Where is the state?’”

He continues: “But there are some aspects that are symmetrical. The lack of curiosity about the other is the main one. I think it was a major mistake in modern Israeli history that there was no attention paid to the Arab culture.”

Barenboim is, however, is just as adamant in his condemnation of violence on both sides as he is on Israel’s right for security. As for anti-Semitism: “It must be fought and as hard as possible; there is no excuse for it.”

And, yet, with all that is wrong with Barenboim’s world, he now operates in what appears a downright paradisiacal oasis of his own making. Two years ago, with mix of private and government funding, he established the Barenboim-Said Akademie, renovating an old warehouse behind the Staatsoper.

This has become the permanent home of WEDO as well as a full-time teaching facility. Its centerpiece is the Pierre Boulez Saal, a revolutionary small concert hall designed by Frank Gehry and with acoustics by Yasuhisa Toyota that has given the Akademie a major presence in Berlin.

In a space with a magical ambiance and ticket prices always starting at under $20 and never rising over $100, no matter how great or famous the performers, it became one of not only Berlin’s, but the world’s great concert destinations. Attendance, Barenboim says, is at 97.5%.

What he finds the most encouraging of all, though, is that whether the programs are of Barenboim playing Beethoven piano sonatas; members of the Divan performing Tchaikovsky or Boulez; or, as was to begin shortly after my visit, a week of Arab music, it’s, Barenboim exclaims, “all the same public.

Belying Berlin’s growing intolerance, particularly toward Jews and emigrant Muslims, Barenboim proudly concludes that in the Boulez Saal, “There is a very good feeling.”

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