Daniel Barenboim West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Written by: Colin Anderson

Daniel Barenboim talks about the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and his friend Edward Said

I phone Daniel Barenboim in Seville, the summer residence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he, an Israeli citizen, and the late Edward Said, a Palestinian, founded in 1999. The Orchestra and Barenboim remember Said at a Barbican concert on 4 August. Said died last September aged 67 after a long battle with leukaemia. I ask Barenboim for his memories of the writer and philosopher. “He was a very rare human being in that he was a man of wide culture; he was equally at home in literature, music and politics, and he saw the connection between them. He achieved a great moral authority because he was equally at home in many different worlds, and he really said what he thought and what he believed in. He was one of my closest friends. For intellectual stimulus he is irreplaceable.”

I ask how the Divan Orchestra was formed. “I was asked to do something when Weimar was the cultural capital of Europe in 1999. I dreamt about creating a forum where musicians from the Middle East could come and study. There was no plan for an orchestra; we had no idea of the level of the young players and how many there would be. We had over 200 applications. I spoke with Edward and he thought the orchestra was a splendid idea. From then on we developed it together.”

How much does the Divan’s symbolism infiltrate the time spent together? “It’s like a micro-society. Some come because they are only interested in the music and they feel they can learn; others also have a human interest, a curiosity to meet others. This is the only forum where Israelis, Syrians, Lebanese, Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians are all together. Some feel very strongly and come to see if there are things in common and try to understand the aggressiveness from both sides. There are some that only mix with their own, and there are also youthful love-stories across the board! The symbolism is unavoidable. People have watched the news and seen cruel acts of violence and then they go to the concert hall and see the children of those families playing music together. I have met some of the parents: some feel it is a wonderful thing, others have great doubts, and others don’t want to hear.”

While representative of reconciliation, “the young people also learn musically lots of things they don’t learn at home and achieve important positions in orchestras; the principal oboe and leader of Cairo Opera are graduates from our programme, and some violinists are now members of the Israel Philharmonic. The spirit of reconciliation varies from case to case; some go back and tell friends what they’ve experienced and they meet lots of empathy and also a lot of criticism. I have much respect for these kids especially from the Arab world who face criticism from society.” Presumably Barenboim receives censure too? “Yes, but also admiration. If you believe in something, and consider it important, you have to forget about achieving consensus.”

The London concert pairs Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No.3, with Barenboim as soloist, a minor-key work that ends light-heartedly, and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No.5, which journeys from brooding to triumph. “Oh, I hadn’t thought about all that! But I did think about…” Barenboim mentions a significantly titled overture. A London encore? “Maybe!”

Barenboim sums up that “my belief, and it was Edward Said’s belief, that the full dimension of this enterprise will be achieved only the day that the orchestra can play in all the countries that are represented in it, which is currently not the case. We cannot go to Syria; we cannot go to Israel. This has always been our aim and I will not tire to achieve that. When you see this orchestra then you realise that in front of these masterpieces we are all equal whether we are Egyptian, Israeli, or from Timbuktu or Liverpool.”

  • West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, 4 August, Barbican, 7.30
  • Barbican
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” (slightly revised) on 28 July and is reproduced here with permission

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content