Proms 38 & 39: West-eastern divan orchestra / Barenboim, Royal Albert Hall, London

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The Independent Culture

Three beacons of excellence currently dominate the youth-orchestra scene:Gustavo Dudamel's extraordinary Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela; the UBS Verbier Festival Orchestra; and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, whose magic derives from the unique chemistry between its members, its charismatic creator, and the political tragedy to which it is a defiant response.

Daniel Barenboim repeatedly insists that the Divan is not an "orchestra for peace": it's an "orchestra against ignorance", with no party line beyond a conviction that there are no military solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In a pre-Prom talk, three of its players explained what membership meant to them: the Palestinian violist who had grown up in a refugee camp said his motive for joining was to meet Israelis in a human situation; a Palestinian from Nazareth explained that his was to meet his brother-Arabs, out of bounds on the other side of the wall. Music was their unifying passion.

Opening with Haydn's Sinfonia concertante for oboe, bassoon, violin and cello, they produced a warm, confident sound, turning the work's angles and corners with Viennese grace; the soloists made a first-rate quartet. Schoenberg's Variations would test any orchestra's powers to the limit, yet they negotiated their way through its intricate 12-note landscape as if they'd lived in it all their lives.

One completely forgot that this was a youth orchestra, with some members aged 11 and 12: these Arabs and Israelis, side by side, could compete with any orchestra in the world. What they did with Brahms's Fourth Symphony was no less impressive, even if they did occasionally fail to produce the requisite elephantine smoothness of sound.

The chamber concert that followed began with an exquisite performance of Boulez's poised Memoriale, but ended with Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat, in which the Divan was obliterated by Patrice Chéreau's ham rendition of the whole verbose libretto – in French.

Michael Church

BBC Proms continue to 13 September (0845 401 5040)