Posted on May 13, 2006, by & filed under News.

Daniel Barenboim’s Work with Israeli and Arab Musicians

Daniel Barenboim, the famous pianist and conductor, was married to the great cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, who made Elgar’s great Cello Concerto her own before she died at a tragically young age. In the early Nineties, he became friends with the leading Palestinian intellectual the late Edward Said through a chance meeting in an hotel lobby. They found they had much vision in common for the potential of a future Israel-Palestine at peace. Together they came up with the idea of an Israeli-Arab orchestra, for young musicians to live and work together and foster understanding between the two races at a deep level, united by love and dedication to great music, a common language that transcended racial divisions.

Under Barenboim’s watchful patronage, the West-Eastern Divan Workshop and Orchestra began in 1999 in Weimar, Germany. It is essentially a youth summer school leading to some orchestral performances, for musicians aged 14 to 25. The name comes from Goethe’s work West-Ostlicher Divan, a synthesis of Islamic and European poetry. It has taken place every year since, now having a permanent home in Seville in Spain. Last year, the orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, appeared at The Proms. The BBC covered the live performance stimulatingly, including candid interviews with Arab and Jewish members of the orchestra in the interval. A week later, the orchestra performed in Ramallah in the West Bank for the first time.

You can purchase the live CD recording of this momentous occasion. And a DVD set is also available, which includes a diary of the workshop and orchestra. Do me a favour and don’t buy such things at Amazon, which has been exposed time and again for bad practices towards staff and, of course, it was revealed that the company had avoided paying huge amounts of its tax dues for UK-based activities and sales.

The creation of the Palestine Youth Orchestra

About four years ago, soon before Edward Said died in 2003, Barenboim and he determined to form a Palestine Youth Orchestra, despite the tremendous logistical problems raised by restrictions on movement in the Occupied Territories, for the purposes of gathering for orchestral practices and the like. There was already a thriving National Conservatory of Music, founded in 1993, based at Birzeit University, the YWCA in Jerusalem and the International Center in Bethlehem, providing a seed bed for young classical musicians training in both Western and Arabic classical music. With the help of the Said-Barenboim Foundation, partnering the Conservatory and the Friends’ School in Ramallah, the new orchestra began to be formed and five young volunteer professional musicians from Berlin were recruited to help the project to come to fruition. In May, 2004, a skeleton orchestra gave its inaugural concert, conducted by Barenboim himself, in The Friends’ Boys School Hall in Ramallah to an ecstatic audience of townspeople. When Barenboim spoke at this event, he related how he had felt terrified of failure after promising the Palestinians in 2002 that they would have their youth orchestra in five years, and how amazed he was to be standing there only two years on with the large ensemble of young musicians behind him, if not yet with a fully-fledged concert orchestra.

This article’s author was present at that concert. Read his personal account of the occasion below.

Against All Odds, the Best of Civilisation Goes On

I was lucky to be allowed in. Ann, an eccentric American saint in her sixties, had asked me to join her at the Friendsa Boys School in Ramallah to see Daniel Barenboim perform. Barenboim? In Ramallah? Sure thing, I said! She didnat know it was _invitation only_, and, of course, the hall was packed, but in customarily relaxed and accommodating Palestinian manner, the people at the door allowed us in. I found myself sitting next to the school’s Headteacher, an English man who had endeavoured to keep the school functioning as normally as possible through the invasion of Ramallah, the destruction of the PA HQ and the long curfews, the year before.

Barenboim, I only then discovered, had come to the inaugural performance of the Palestinian Youth Orchestra. To get to this quite run-down school hall in a West Bank town, from Jerusalem he would have passed through 2 checkpoints. I don’t know whether his status as a world-renowned Jewish musician had gained him a speedy transit through. He, and the recently deceased leading Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, had proposed the formation of this orchestra. They set up a trust to realise what was a vision that defied the physical realities of life and restriction of movement in the Occupied Territories. Great obstacles had to be overcome and sacrifices made by young, gifted musicians in order to come together to rehearse. Barenboim risked predicting that it would take 5 years to bring the project to fruition.

Yet only 2 years later, here we were, even if only a small orchestra was assembled on stage to perform the debut concert; about 25 young, beautiful people in smart black suits and dresses. The audience were dressed up for the occasion, showing off the chic dress sense typical of Palestinians, many from a well-to-do past, in this once relatively affluent hill town, a popular retreat for Arabs from afar in the heat of mid-summer. I noticed Dr Mustafa Barghoutie being shown to a seat at the front. Recently he won 26% of the vote in the presidential election, a robust performance, which displayed how here, in proud Palestine, the seedlings of democracy in the Middle East are germinating amongst the cracks in the abused social order.

Barenboim played three Beethoven sonatas on the piano exquisitely, spoke movingly on the universal, unifying language of music, dedicating the concert to the memory of Edward Said, and then conducted the orchestra through two pieces triumphantly, an adaptation of the overture to Carmen and Dvorak’s Slavonic Dances. With a limited repertoire to fall back on, Carmen was repeated for an encore. The audience roared and whistled its approval at every possible moment, not caring for niceties about silence between movements. I cried a little from a mix of euphoria and anger at the unjust stifling of so many talented people’s aspirations in that school hall. I think there were proud tears shed by plenty of Palestinian eyes that night. I rejoiced at sharing this precious moment with them all.