The Strings That Bind

The 10th anniversary of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra defies cultural differences and promotes unity and peace


Daniel Barenboim with members of an orchestra of Israelis and Palestinians | Photo: Paul Smaczny

A grim-faced Daniel Barenboim strode out on to the stage of Berlin’s Staatsoper on Monday night, Jan. 12, for an anniversary concert no one knew how to celebrate. Ten years ago, the Israeli conductor joined forces with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to create the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra of young musicians from Israel, Palestine and the Arab countries.

It was a bold attempt to foster dialogue and cooperation through music, but Israel’s Gaza offensive threatened to overshadow the 10-year birthday party. How could these young musicians sit on a stage together when their families were on opposite sides of a bloody conflict in their homeland? Complicating matters further, the planned anniversary concerts in Egypt and Qatar have had to be cancelled amid concerns for the safety of orchestra members. The concert was hastily rescheduled for Barenboim’s Berlin home, the Staatsoper. Tickets sold out within hours and a second performance, three hours after the first, was added. It too sold out.

A buzz surrounded Berlin’s oldest opera house on Unter den Linden as the audience gathered. Five television networks colonized various corners of the building to record events, quizzing attendees about the orchestra, the concert and the Gaza conflict.

Police vans were parked discreetly down one side of the opera house; on the other side, pro-Palestinian campaigners gathered on Bebelplatz, scene of the notorious 1933 book-burning by the Nazis, with a banner reading: “It’s only a massacre.”

The concert program comprised Beethoven’s Leonore III overture and Symphony No. 5, and Brahms’s Symphony No 4. Barenboim was, as ever, an electric presence on the stage. As the 66-year-old conductor pleaded with and chastised musicians a third of his age, he hopped and swayed and at times appeared to be the youngest person on stage.

Even more exciting was the orchestra, too young to be bored by their program of standards, too professional to let their personal feelings keep them from the performance.

Instead, Barenboim channeled the players’ energy, enthusiasm and even anger to electrify the Leonore overture. During the later movements of Beethoven’s Fifth, it was profoundly moving to see the young musicians meditating on the music as they produced it. The evening’s highlight, however, was an exquisite Brahms performance, which, while it lost some energy towards the end, was a poised and proud achievement.

The Berlin audience, including president Horst Köhler, gave the orchestra a seven-minute standing ovation, which, by the end, finally brought some smiles to the serious young faces on stage. They were smiles of relief after stressful days in the media spotlight. The relief was palpable in the auditorium, too, as concert-goers embraced the chance to cheer this show of unity by Israelis and Palestinians, rather than have to take sides in the debate outside.

After the concert, members of the orchestra went outside to meet the Palestinian protesters and light candles.

“It’s just such a waste of human life,” said Israeli violinist Gad Lev. With his three-year compulsory military service behind him, he is worried about friends he has lost contact with who are still serving, presumably in Gaza.

“With the orchestra, we’re not trying to say anything in particular,” he says. “We just try to show the strings that bind us and to show that we have peace in our small orchestra microcosm.”

The orchestra issued a statement condemning actions on both sides in Gaza, calling for an end to the Israeli occupation and the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state that would “grant the Palestinians the same freedom and independence Israel has enjoyed since 1948”.

“We stand for an alternative model based on equality, cooperation and justice for all,” the musicians said. They called for an end to all violence, saying there was “no military solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Barenboim, an outspoken critic of Israel in the past and an honorary Palestinian citizen, was critical of the international response to the Gaza conflict.

“The international community has always looked on this as a political conflict, but it’s not, and viewing things that way or trying to solve it by diplomatic or military means is a waste of time,” he said. “This is a conflict between two peoples, convinced they have a right to occupy the same piece of land. We need everybody at the table without preconditions. We need to put them all in a conclave like when they choose the pope and not let them out until they find a solution.”

Since the death of Said in 2003, Barenboim has acted as the orchestra’s conductor and conciliator-in-chief. In regular e-mail contact with his musicians, he has to defuse conflict, calm fears and offer encouragement to ensure that the orchestra holds together, particularly in these difficult times.

“During the Lebanon War, everybody in the orchestra felt anger. Today, everyone is just hurting,” he said.


This article is published courtesy of The Irish Times, where it first appeared in the print edition of Jan. 16

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