Daniel Barenboim: The sound of peace-making

The conductor Daniel Barenboim has defied his critics to create a youth orchestra whose musicians cross the Israeli-Palestinian divide. He's not playing politics, he tells James Rampton, but music is his contribution to finding a solution to the conflict
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The Independent Culture

In August, as the intifada was raging in the Middle East and the much-vaunted "road map" to peace appeared to be in tatters, thousands of miles away, in the Royal Albert Hall, the pianists Saleem Abboud-Ashkar and Shai Wosner were smiling, holding hands and taking a bow in front of an ecstatic audience. In tandem with the conductor Daniel Barenboim, they had just completed a triumphant performance of Mozart's Concerto for Three Pianos. The standing ovation at the end of the Prom lasted for half an hour. It was a moment rich with symbolism: Abboud-Ashkar is Palestinian; Wosner, Israeli.

This affecting image had its origins in a project begun four years ago. At that time, Barenboim, the acclaimed Argentine-born, Israeli conductor, teamed up with his old friend, the now deceased Palestinian philosopher Edward Said, to bring to life a concept that sceptics on both sides of the political divide derided as impossibly misguided: a youth orchestra consisting equally of Jews and Arabs.

After trawling the Middle East for candidates and coming up with many fine young musicians from both communities, they formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. (The rather unwieldy name is taken from a work written by Goethe, which melds Islamic and European poetry.)

Many of the participants, who come from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and the Lebanon, had never even heard an orchestra live before. Aged between 13 and 26, they now attend a summer school held on neutral soil every year (near Seville this time round). They have played concerts in the Palestinian territories and in front of the Moroccan royal family. People have taken to calling them "the peace orchestra".

Barenboim has sons of his own - by his second wife, the pianist Elena Bashkirova, whom he married after the death of his first, the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré. One son is a violinist; the other is planning to become a hip-hop artist. In the conductor's public life, also, he is passionate about passing on his musical knowledge to the next generation. He possesses a visionary quality that is simply infectious. So he particularly cherished the emotional curtain call at the end of the Prom in August. For him, the orchestra is a metaphor for what could be achieved in the Middle East.

Speaking to me at the end of a hard week of working at his "day job" as musical director of the Berlin Staatsoper (he is also in charge of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), the 60-year-old maestro declares that an orchestra is a symbol of democracy. "Music says everything about unity and harmony. The musicians in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra work together toward a common goal. That in itself is a revolutionary concept, considering where they come from."

He continues, saying that the orchestra, which is the subject of an absorbing edition of ITV1's The South Bank Show this Sunday, is "a musical version of what I think about the Middle East, a vision I can have of the Middle East where everyone is able to contribute and where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts".

That's all very well, but isn't the entire idea absurdly idealistic? Very possibly. And yet the players who have been to Barenboim's workshops attest to the unifying force of the music. Mina Zikri, an Egyptian violinist, reckons that getting to know Israeli members of the orchestra "humanises the other party. Images can be very misleading. The suicide bomber brings to mind a certain image. So does the [Israeli] military operation. But these must not be fixed in one's brain."

Through the orchestra, he has befriended Israelis, including a bassoonist called Ayelet Ballin. "Now, when I see her," Zikri carries on, "I think: 'Here is my friend,' not: 'Here is the Israeli person.'"

Yoni Etzion, an Israeli member of the orchestra, takes up the theme. "Here we get to understand that life isn't about territory and war. We all have the same purpose - to make music - and that brings us together." There is certainly no favouritism on Barenboim's part. He says that he loses his temper just as easily with musicians from both sides of the divide, and that nobody takes it personally.

Its founders have always maintained that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra should not be regarded as a political exercise. Rather, it is motivated by music. According to Said, who saw the orchestra as "one of the most important things I have done in my life", it "is non-political and has no ulterior motive. It doesn't pretend to be building bridges. But there it is, a paradigm of coherent and intelligent people living together. It's like a stone you throw in a pond. The ripple effect has been extraordinary." So can the orchestra effect any political change? "No," Barenboim states in unequivocal tones. "We've helped on a musical level - many of our students now have major positions in Arab orchestras. Forgive my immodesty, but I know that we have made them better musicians."

And beyond that? "Maybe the work we have done will leave an aftertaste about how we have to learn to live together," the conductor reflects. "Many Israelis don't see that. They see only the terrible effects of suicide bombing and can't see how our two destinies are inextricably tied together. The workshops don't provide answers, but they help to fight ignorance and to give people some food for thought."

He thinks that the very existence of the orchestra is a sufficient political stance. "Any kind of contact between the two sides can only be positive, because anyone who wants to have contact is inevitably preoccupied with the future," Barenboim contends. "From that point of view, this is a non-political, [personal] project."

All the same, he acknowledges that the endeavour is freighted with political significance. "It was never my intention, but there's nothing I can do about people putting a political interpretation on the orchestra. When you do something unusual, you have to be prepared for people to be vociferous, both for and against it.

"But for these kids to walk on stage at the Royal Albert Hall and see the audience going mad for them is a wonderful thing. Where else will a young Syrian musician have the benefit of such a sophisticated audience? For me, it's as a simple as that."

Melvyn Bragg, the presenter of The South Bank Show, agrees that the orchestra should not be weighted down with excess political baggage. "I don't want to think about the orchestra in political terms. They never say: 'This will make people behave better or love each other.' People from both sides are playing music together - that's a powerful emotional statement in itself. If you want to draw anything more from it, that's up to you.

"But what is great is that when the camera pans across the orchestra, you can't tell who's Jewish and who's Palestinian. You could have a bet and still nobody would know. I think that's exhilarating."

Even so, the orchestra has, almost inevitably, attracted censure. Hardline Israelis have accused Barenboim of "naivety" for conducting the orchestra and teaching in Palestinian towns, and many Arab governments are equally suspicious of the endeavour. Bragg reveals that he had "real difficulties" persuading some of the Arab players to appear on camera.

But Barenboim brushes off any criticism. "Extremists don't worry me," he says forcefully. "They just feed on each other. Contrary to the way it's been reported, I've had no criticism from the Israeli government. People always want to stir up trouble and a few people on committees made noises, but the government didn't. The great majority of Israelis see the point of this orchestra and are very happy about it. I've been to Israel several times when Israelis have known I was in Ramallah the night before - that's wonderful. My close relationship with the Israeli public has not suffered because of this." That said, Barenboim is no stranger to controversy. Two years ago, his decision to end a long-held ban and conduct a piece by Richard Wagner at the annual Israel Festival in Jerusalem whipped up the most ferocious storm.

It is an emotive issue in the country. Wagner, a rabid anti-Semite, was Adolf Hitler's favourite composer, and for as long as the state of Israel had existed, there had been an unwritten law that his music would not be played there. When, in 1981, Zubin Mehta attempted to conduct the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra in a section of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde, the performance was halted by a Holocaust survivor. He leapt on stage and showed the audience the scars he had received at the hands of Nazi concentration camp guards. However, Barenboim was undaunted. Heresolved to break the rule when, a few days before the festival, he heard a Wagnerian ring-tone on someone's mobile during a news conference.

"The telephone's ring was 'The Ride of the Valkryries' by Wagner," the conductor recollects. "And I thought, 'If it can be heard on the ring of a telephone, why can't it be played in a concert hall?'" After he had led the Berlin Staatskapelle through an excerpt from Tristan und Isolde, an almighty row broke out. Ephraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, fumed that what Barenboim had done was the equivalent of "cultural rape. That's exactly what he did. He tried to seduce the Israeli public. When the Israeli public refused, he raped us." Meanwhile, Ehud Olmert, the mayor of Jerusalem, condemned Barenboim's conduct as "brazen, arrogant, uncivilised and insensitive".

In Barenboim's defence, Bragg maintains that the conductor "is very much of the opinion that you must not hold a prejudice against the work. I agree with that 100 per cent. Wagner was a vile anti-Semite, but when you listen to Tristan und Isolde, you think, 'what am I supposed to do now?' Barenboim is a man on a mission to say to his fellow Jews, whom he dearly loves, 'we must move on.'"

The conductor asserts now that "the scandal didn't hurt me. There were 3,000 people in the hall, and before conducting the Wagner I debated with them from the podium for 45 minutes. I said: 'If anyone doesn't want to hear this, please leave now.' Fifty people left, but those who stayed gave us a standing ovation at the end. I'd have been hurt if anyone had shouted obscenities at me, but that was not the case. The scandal only happened the next day, and it was started by people who were not even there. This was a concert for which you had to buy a ticket. You don't have to go, so why stop others? I don't believe that people suffer in Tel Aviv because they know that Wagner is being played in Jerusalem. There is a crisis in Israeli society because we're not getting rid of certain taboos."

Hitting his rhetorical stride, Barenboim continues: "While we are so proud to have become a nation, we haven't really shed the old skin of having been a minority for 2,000 years. Part of the problem is that when the state of Israel was created, we instantly had to make the transition from minority to nation. Just 19 years later, we found ourselves in control of another minority. That transition has not taken place in the minds of many Israelis. It requires deep inner change; you can' t treat the Palestinians in the way that other people have treated you." He gives a striking example. "If a Jew in the Warsaw Ghetto during the Second World War had thrown a dried-up piece of bread at a Gestapo commander, then that would be the sign of a fighting spirit and nothing but positive. However, if a Jew threw the same dried-up piece of bread at a Palestinian now, well, that's a completely different story..."

Like Said, Barenboim believes that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra "has become the most important thing I do." During rehearsals, the conductor is so fired up that he will leap into the violin section to demonstrate exactly how vigorously he wants the strings to play. And it's not just during rehearsals that he is galvanised into action: after playing a summer concert in Ramallah, where Yasser Arafat is based, the conductor pledged to help with the development of classical music there. He has installed two teachers, and is now attempting to put music on the Palestinian*

*school curriculum. He has also promised to establish a Palestinian youth orchestra within five years.

A keen student of history and a strong advocate of the "two-state solution", Barenboim believes he can make a contribution to the peace process through his music. "Until the declaration of independence of the state of Israel, everyone there was Palestinian," he reflects. "Then, on 15 May 1948, part of the population acquired a new identity - Israeli - but the other part didn't. After 50 years, you can't say to the Palestinians: 'Bad luck, it was your fault.' Therefore, we have a responsibility to the people who were displaced. As time goes by, the very existence of Israel depends on a solution to the Palestinian problem. No effort must be spared to find a solution for the Palestinians because it's the solution for the Israelis, too. Unless one is found, there will be a global catastrophe. I have no political ambitions, but I feel very strongly about this. So whatever I have achieved in life I want to pass on, and the first place I want to pass it on is with the orchestra."

Expanding on the idea that the destinies of Israel and Palestine are interlinked, Barenboim suggests: "The fact that the two peoples have a different narrative makes it difficult for outsiders to see why they're so connected." In the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, he has observed that his players are all "temperamentally very similar. This may be one of the cruxes of this conflict. You're not talking here about Puerto Ricans and Norwegians. You're talking about people who I won't say have the same blood, but who certainly have the same temperature of blood. They're all hot-blooded. Their reaction to the music is all the same."

Barenboim genuinely sympathises with the Palestinians, and is always welcomed by them with open arms. According to the conductor, "People in Palestine are very happy when I go there. I don't go with a political mission. I go because I want to show that I feel for them and that I feel it's necessary to find a solution to their problems. That's why they accept me."

There is a wider message here that professional politicians in the Middle East might do well to heed. "The most important thing is to give these people not just culture, but self-respect and dignity," Barenboim argues. "They get that in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; nobody is closer to the music just because he is Jewish or Muslim or Christian.

"That's what is lacking in relationships between Israelis and Palestinians, and that's why this project is so important. Before you can reach an agreement, you have to stand on an equal footing." The maestro pauses, before reaching a crescendo. "In music, we are all equal."