The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra though now based in Seville, Spain was founded in Germany after discussions between writer Edward Said and conductor Daniel Barenboim as a vehicle to promote interchange between Palestinian and Israeli musicians. My attention was first drawn to the orchestra last year in Berlin when I went to a concert at the new hall Frank Gehry has designed for the Barenboim-Said Academy.
Daniel Barenboim has said,
"The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago – ...create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives."
I finally had a chance to catch them at Carnegie Hall last week, where much of this unique collaboration was on display. The orchestra which now crowds even the ample stage at Carnegie Hall is a rousing tribute to music. The mostly young musicians were intent and dedicated in their renditions of Strauss’s Don Quixote and Tchaikovsky’s passionate Symphony 5, always an inspirational piece.
I first saw Barenboim conduct Brahms 2 at his home base at the Staatskappelle in Berlin, a legendary architectural confection. He’s apparently a wonderful and warm person (see this 60 minutes story) and his style is self-effacing but electric. He bows low to the orchestra in a kind of swan dive as he coaxes out what he wants from them.
I had an amazing seat behind Placido Domingo and across the aisle from Alec Baldwin, both passionate artists themselves. Domingo, also a conductor, nodded his head and air-conducted through some particularly engaging musical passages. Baldwin kept his head down after the more combative events of last week, but is to be commended. He is the voice of the NY Phil and supports the arts.
Coming hard on the heels of the midterms and our own divided country displayed in such harsh relief the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a welcome example that getting close to each other means everything.
Photo Credits: Chris Lee.