BRAHMS blazed a path to glory at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night. Beethoven's cry for justice exalted the democratic ideal. Mozart calmed the nerves and treated the pleasure center of the brain. Wagner came forth in the full force of sexual yearning.
These are hardly new experiences for Carnegie. Such is part of the history of this famed hall, if not often with the burning intensity of the performances by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on Tuesday. Audiences absorb emotions, are changed or not changed by them, and then rush out to fight one another for a cab. One does not expect to read in the newspaper the next morning that animosity has been reduced in the Middle East because Daniel Barenboim conducted Brahms' First Symphony splendidly the night before.
The world is not nearly ready to accept the symphony orchestra as a social model. The West-Eastern Divan presents one, though, that should be hard to ignore. Begun seven years ago by Barenboim and the late Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said in Weimar, Germany, and now headquartered in Seville, Spain, it brings together young Arab and Israeli musicians for a summer residency. They live together, perform together and tour together.
The tours have been notable. The Divan's astonishing concert in Ramallah last year is now a film, which is available on DVD along with Paul Smaczny's Emmy-winning documentary on the orchestra. A recording of a hard-hitting performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony with stellar vocal soloists from a live concert in Berlin last summer has just been released on CD. Next summer the Divan will be in residence at the Salzburg Festival.
But the orchestra has been slow to get to the United States. Barenboim brought the band to Chicago several years ago. Its second U.S. appearance this week was limited to a special appearance at the United Nations on Monday, in honor of Secretary-General Kofi Annan, and the Carnegie concert.
The West-Eastern Divan does not warm the heart nor is it meant to. Barenboim, cocky in his conducting and blunt in his political statements, divides opinion. The New York music elite was not out in force in Carnegie, despite a recent news blip when Lorin Maazel, at a press conference earlier in the month, suggested Barenboim as his choice as successor to the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic. Tuesday's unsold seats were offered in quantity to Juilliard students.
But the concert was brilliant. The fire with which these young musicians make music might be anticipated. But their technical accomplishment comes as a surprise. It is all but impossible to identify the nationality of players either by their looks or their sound (most stand partners are Arab and Israeli). The four wind soloists in Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat were Mohamed Saleh Ibrahim (oboe), Kinan Azmeh (clarinet), Mor Biron (bassoon) and Sharon Polyak (horn). The program did not supply their nationalities. But all four exhibited a sweet tone, a lovely feeling for the Mozart phrase, a lively playfulness (this is not mature Mozart and may not be by Mozart at all) and a touching camaraderie.
At times, Barenboim pushed his young players mercilessly. Success with breaking down cultural barriers seems related to the degree to which he works the orchestra. Musicians can't think of much else when so unified by (and maybe against) an authority figure like this.
Barenboim demanded an enormous thrust in Beethoven's "Leonore" Overture No. 3 that took no prisoners, or more accurately, in the context of Beethoven's opera, freed its political captives. The Mozart was more relaxed for the audience but surely not for the players who were impressively attentive to details.
There was showing off in Brahms' First Symphony. Barenboim conducted more extravagantly than I had ever heard him before. In the first movement, he made grandiose swells that might have verged on mannerism had they not exhibited such swooping splendor by the orchestra that they could stop the breath. The slow movement was exquisitely beautiful. The Finale was grandiose again, but grandiose in a youthfully winning way. And loud. Barenboim makes sure that you take note: He shakes the rafters with the Divan.
The long encore for a long program was the "Prelude and Love Death" to Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde," slow, sumptuous, the cellos rapturous and aglow.
It is impossible to hear this orchestra with a politically neutral ear. The message is clear. But it is not the message we might be prepared for. Yes, youths with profoundly different outlooks and histories can come together for a common cause. But more than that, and what we in distant America do not always recognize, is that great talent also exists in all parts of the world, talent that is ignored, allowed to be wasted or outright destroyed by politics. The West-Eastern Divan works.