First Night: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

A success story from discord of Middle East bring harmony
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The Independent Culture



Daniel Barenboim with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra scored a bullseye last night at the Barbican in a memorial concert to Edward Said.

The concert hall, filled to the rafters with every kind of punter, welcomed back to London perhaps the world's most unlikely orchestra. The West-Eastern Divan is the brainchild of Edward Said, the Palestinian academic and writer, and Daniel Barenboim, pianist and maestro supremo.

A chance meeting in a London hotel led these two men not only to a profound friendship but an urgent goal: to establish in a powerful non-violent manner, a means to oppose the inferno of mutual and self-destruction that stands for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It was an experiment that began in Weimar in 1999 - the orchestra takes its name from a volume of work by Goethe, the first great poet to recognise the East as an equal not an adversary.

Aged 13-26, Arabs and Israelis are represented in equal numbers with players drawn from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Israel and now Palestine. Last year, the West-Eastern Divan appeared at the Proms to a rapturous reception.

The implausibility of a Palestinian sitting next to an Israeli sent a powerful message.

This year, not only was a 14 year-old violinist from Ramallah in the band but the orchestra came with the highest of professional accolades: the 2003 Royal Philharmonic Society Award for Large Ensemble.

Seville in Andalucía - where Jews and Muslims lived in harmony for seven centuries - houses and finances the orchestra but security of movement for the young musicians from their home countries to attend the annual summer meeting and tour has always been a problem.

The identities of the musicians are not given in programmes for fear of repercussions. But in a remarkable move by the Spanish, diplomatic passports will be made available as required.

Said died last year. He saw this orchestra as the most important thing he had done in his life and, on any musical scale, it is a remarkable orchestra. Barenboim galvanises the players, stamping his feet, thrashing his arms, charming "his children".

Conducting from the keyboard, he produced a mesmerising performance of Beethoven's 3rd Piano Concerto. In Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, the elegance of phrasing and passionate commitment said it all.

Even the original words of Tchaikovsky's motto theme taken from Glinka's A Life of the Tsar spelled it out: 'Turn not into Sorrow'.

Annette Morreau