Classical Music Confronts Conflict via Collaboration

By Steven Libowitz   |   March 5, 2020
Michael Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble make their Santa Barbara debut at the Music Academy of the West on Saturday, March 7 (photo by Marcus Höhn)

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was founded by renowned conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian scholar/author Edward Said 20 years ago to bring together outstanding young Palestinian and Israeli musicians in a collaboration superseding national and cultural boundaries. The group, Barenboim has said, was conceived as a project against ignorance and aims to promote understanding and pave the way for a peaceful and fair solution of the seemingly intractable Arab-Israeli conflict by recognizing the importance for individuals on one side – with members from Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt – to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels. The orchestra has shown the world that it’s possible to sit down with people of opposing viewpoints and put aside those differences to play great music together.

The much more intimate West-Eastern Divan Ensemble was formed last year to honor its parent orchestra’s two-decade milestone, hand-picked from the larger group by Barenboim to draw upon the orchestra’s highly-praised artistry in an intimate chamber formation. Led by violinist and concertmaster Michael Barenboim (Daniel’s son), the ensemble extends the orchestra’s youthful energy and message of “Equal in Music” to smaller chamber works. In their Santa Barbara debut they will play well-known works by Schubert and Mendelssohn sandwiched around a commissioned composition by contemporary French composer Benjamin Attahir who himself draws inspiration from both the West and East.

Michael Barenboim talked about the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble and program over the phone from New York ahead of the afternoon concert on Saturday, March 7, at the Music Academy of the West’s Hahn Hall.

Q. What is the purpose and goal of the smaller ensemble intimate chamber formation?

A. We wanted to give the opportunity to the musicians to perform in a more exposed role playing important pieces of chamber music. It also gives the audience the experience of the musicianship in a more intimate environment, more direct and up close. And from the perspective of spreading ideas, the smaller size lets us travel to many more places, such as the US, where we can play 14 concerts, which would not be possible for the full orchestra.

How does sharing musical connections help to bridge cultural and political divides?

From the very beginning, the point wasn’t about creating a gan orchestra but rather a forum, a place where people from the countries in the Middle East could cooperate and make music and have a project together where the idea was that musicians from countries that are otherwise at conflict could be together on the basis of equality. Mendelssohn doesn’t care where you come from, but there’s value to making music and finding a common way of working. Bringing peace to the Middle East is unrealistic. But it’s an alternative way of thinking for the region, one that’s not based on conflict, arms and blood shed, but cooperation and understanding.

What has been the impact over the 20 years?

For the musicians, not one who has gone into the Divan has come out thinking the same way as before. Frankly, it’s impossible. When you have actual direct human contact with what at home would be the enemy – who you would never even entertain any thoughts of meeting – it changes you. So every musician that has been with us even for a short period of time has been impacted. Also, musically, the work we do is very intense with a lot of rehearsing and preparation. It makes people grow as musicians, too. It also has an effect on the people who see us. If you go in thinking a very specific and limited way, the change will probably be very small, but nevertheless it’s something. But of course it’s not realistic to expect a group of musicians to have any effect on the political and cultural situation of the countries.

How does the new work, Benjamin Attahir’s Jawb, serve the mission?

It’s a very strong piece and it has had a big effect on the audience everywhere we’ve played it. It has a lot of character that speaks for itself. Attahir wrote it from a desire to extend musical friendship, things that are close to his heart. It has a fascinating structure, very unusual for a string octet. He usually composes with a clear structure that has a point of recapitulation, like a classical sonata or rondo, something that comes back and you recognize. But he doesn’t do that here. The thematic material is developed and varies as it goes along – always forward, never looking back. The difficulty is to have a new piece with no moments of recognition, but he creates a sense of understanding through other means. He wrote it for us and he knew what he was doing.

It only goes forward. That seems like a metaphor for a solution for the problems in the Middle East – moving forward, because looking at the past is about conflict and hatred.

I don’t think he made that connection. But the piece itself is a special moment for him, because he really doesn’t write this way. Then again, the title means something like “path” or “crossing,” so the bridge-building metaphor is within.

How does it fit with the rest of the program?

I told him we would be playing the other two pieces and he wrote it with that in mind. The Mendelssohn String Octet in E-flat Major is the most important piece in the repertoire, nothing else comes remotely close. Attahir’s way of writing for the same instrumentation is a fascinating approach. And with the Schubert I wanted to find something to start the concert that had a solo part and single strings, a beautiful piece that gives the concert a good start and prepares the ear for the Attahir piece.

At this point is it a blessing or curse to be thought of first as the orchestra that has both Israeli and Palestinian members rather than simply a great ensemble?

We have no control of that, but we can change how we perform, what quality we bring to the stage, what message we transmit with the music. People come to the concert for different reasons. But once it starts, what they hear is Mendelssohn. In the end it’s about the music. We must play at the highest possible level to be taken seriously. And that’s why we get invited back to big festivals – they don’t invite us because of who we are, at least not after the first time. But of course where we come from is definitely relevant.


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