No ordinary youth orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra causes quite a stir wherever it performs. Comprised of a mix of Arab, Israeli and Spanish musicians, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is committed to coexistence and a peaceful solution to the violent conflict in the Middle East. With such a volatile mission statement – and with Daniel Barenboim at the helm – the orchestra can hardly escape media headlines and political controversy. Still, the group continues to use music as a platform to build bridges between contrasting cultures and to promote peace.

Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra © Monika Rittershaus
Daniel Barenboim conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
© Monika Rittershaus

Sitting in the dark basement at (Le) Poisson Rouge, far from the political issues dominating the Middle East, some audience members were intrigued by the night’s performance; others – like me, I’ll admit – were starstruck, just at the mere prospect of seeing Maestro Barenboim in person. The air was buzzing with anticipation. Then the orchestra was introduced, as an “extraordinary nexus for talent”, and the audience caught their breath, desperately wishing the statement to prove true.

Enveloped in a soft blue hue, Kinan Azmeh (clarinet) took to the stage; Azmeh performed his own composition, Prayer, a tribute to the orchestra’s late co-founder, the renowned intellectual Edward Saïd. In this modern piece, Azmeh‘s fingers caressed his woodwind instrument, leaving no part untouched; the piece encompassed a wide range of techniques, from playful trills to harmonic minor tones, jazzy riffs to breathy, hollow sounds.

Next was first violinist Michael Barenboim. Despite a brief hiccup in the middle of Pierre Boulez’s Anthèmes I, Barenboim’s performance was determined and bold; a stark contrast to the wistful performance before him.

Then Daniel Barenboim himself joined the two soloists on stage to perform Bartók’s Contrasts for clarinet, violin and piano. Based upon Romanian and Bulgarian folk melodies, the piece was chaotic in parts, heightened by high-pitched trills and ascending chromaticism, but then also tranquil at times. Both Barenboims cast a haunting spell upon the audience with their intentionally muddled sounds; Michael with his long, suspended lines in the violin and Daniel with heavy pedal in the piano.

The final piece, Mendelssohn’s Octet, was the moment that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and their credo truly came to light. Although only eight musicians from the entire orchestra sat atop the stage Tuesday night, that so-called “utopia” critics and theorists talk about was vibrant and clear. Seated in a semicircle without a conductor – a sight I’ve grown accustomed to thanks to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra – each musician truly listened to each other, turning their heads every so often to really hear the interlocking lines embedded in the score. The loveliest moment occurred in the second movement during a key change: with quick runs in the strings and a suspended bass line underneath, the theme steadily emerged from this musical shape until it wholly transformed into a sprightly waltz. The transition was seamless.

From start the finish, the musicians from the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra revealed the real reason why this orchestra not only makes headlines, but also deserves them: in the midst of a classical music performance, notions of identity were utterly and completely lost.

In a speech given upon being awarded the Prince of Asturias Award for Concord in Spain in 2002, Edward Saïd pronounced the following: “Strange as it may seem, it is culture generally and music in particular that provides an alternate model for the identity conflict”. A romantic vision for some, Saïd’s words bear a hint of truth. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brings together musicians from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iran, Turkey and Spain; their conductor and director holds both an Israeli and a Palestinian passport; and they performed in a country that, politically, has very obvious (and vocal) opinions about the Middle-Eastern conflict. But when the orchestra was performing Mendelsohn’s Octet, none of that mattered. The music subsumed the politics, and it was sublime.

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