Barenboim strikes a divisive note once more

Conductor defies Israeli security to perform peace concert for Palestinians
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The Independent Culture

For a man who claimed he was not political, he was making a profoundly political point. "I am Palestinian," Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim told an audience following his first-ever performance in besieged Gaza. "I am also Israeli. So you see it is possible to be both."

It was a statement of solidarity with an occupied people, but also a partially accurate one. Mr Barenboim, an Argentine-born Jew, received honorary Palestinian citizenship in 2008 for his services to Palestinians.

His requests to visit Gaza repeatedly spurned by Israel, Mr Barenboim circumvented the normal channels to bring an international ensemble, comprising 25 musicians from leading European orchestras, into the coastal enclave through Egypt to perform in a "peace concert". It was the first time that a group of leading musicians has performed in Gaza since Israel imposed its land and naval blockade of the tiny enclave four years ago, cutting it off from the world.

Under tight security at a glitzy cultural centre on Gaza's shorefront, the musicians performed works by Mozart, including Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to an audience of several hundred Palestinians, many of them schoolchildren. For some of them, it was their first introduction to classical music, and they broke into applause after every movement. But as the orchestra started to play Mozart's Symphony in G Minor, there was something that many in the audience could relate to: Fairuz, the famed Lebanese singer, has set the melody to one of her most famous love songs. "Magical," enthused Abdel Khader, a 15-year-old student, following the concert. "A once in a lifetime experience."

Mr Barenboim, who grew up just 45 minutes away in Tel Aviv, where the glistening skyscrapers and bustling restaurants are a rude contrast to the war-ravaged buildings of Gaza City, spoke movingly to the audience as he opened the concert.

"You have been blocked here for many years," he said. "And this is why we all came today ... not only to give you solace and maybe pleasure in listening, but so you understand that many people from all over the world care for you."

Much as Mr Barenboim is feted by the Palestinians, he is a divisive figure in Israel for his outspoken opposition to Israel's policy in the occupied territories, accusing Israel of "a moral abomination" at the height of the Second Intifada, the mass Palestinian uprising.

The conductor and musical director at the Berlin Staatskapelle, married to celebrated cellist Jaqueline du Pre until her untimely death from multiple sclerosis, has also courted controversy with his efforts to perform works in Israel by Richard Wagner, Hitler's favourite composer, much to the revulsion of Holocaust survivors and their families.

Joining a growing call to lift the Israel-led siege aimed at weakening Hamas, the Islamist overlords of the coastal enclave, Mr Barenboim said: "People have got to learn to live side by side, not back to back."

The land and naval blockade, imposed by Israel in 2007 after Hamas seized control of Gaza, has decimated Gaza's once-thriving economy and effectively imprisoned the majority of the 1.5 million people who live there.

Human rights bodies have slammed it as collective punishment, and have urged Israel to lift it. Under international pressure, Israel has eased it to a degree, but restrictions on exports – essential to economic recovery – and the ability of Palestinians to travel remain in place. A UN messenger for peace, Mr Barenboim said that he had taken away certain values from his childhood in Israel, and that he was "saddened and hurt" by the way the decades-long conflict had developed.

"Our conflict is a conflict of two peoples who are convinced they have the right to live in the same little piece of land, therefore, our destinies are linked," Mr Barenboim told the audience. To a standing ovation, he added, "No people should be expected to live under occupation."

The conductor, who made his name as a world-class pianist, has tried to promote mutual understanding between Israelis and Palestinians through music, setting up with his friend Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, made up of young Israeli and Arab musicians.

But it has also created divisions. When he asked a Jerusalem audience a decade ago whether they wanted to hear a piece by Wagner, whose anti-Semitic writings drew admiration from Hitler, it prompted an angry 30-minute debate during which several of his audience hurled insults at him, calling him a "fascist" and a "disgrace". When he started conducting the piece, several stalked out of the auditorium.

His visit to Gaza at the invitation of the UN and Palestinian NGOs is likely to earn him similar opprobrium in some quarters. Israel refused Mr Barenboim entry via its Erez crossing last year on the grounds that Hamas was still holding Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured in a cross-border raid nearly five years ago.

In the event, within moments of the concert ending, he and his ensemble were heading back for the Egyptian border before taking a charter plane back to Berlin.

$10m Stradivarius on sale

The owners of the Lady Blunt, a 1721 Stradivarius violin, are putting it up for auction for the tsunami relief effort in Japan.

The violin, which was once owned by Lady Anne Blunt, one of Byron's granddaughters, reached $10m at private auction in 2008. It was a record price, as it was in 1971 when it sold at Sotheby's for more than £120,000.

The not-for-profit Nippon Music Foundation, based in Tokyo, says the violin is so valuable because of its condition. Its website says it is "the best-preserved Stradivarius violin in existence". The violin is one of 21 string instruments, including others by Stradivari and Guarneri, which the foundation lends for free to world-class musicians.

The foundation's president, Kazuko Shiomi, said: "Everyone and every organisation should make some sacrifice for those affected by this tragedy." The violin will be sold online on 20 June.