West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Barenboim, Barbican, London

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The Independent Culture

Simply sensational! The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra scored a bull's-eye in this memorial concert to Edward Said, the Palestinian academic and writer. The orchestra is the brainchild of its conductor, the pianist and maestro supremo Daniel Barenboim, and Said. It was their aim to establish, in a powerful, non-violent manner, a means to oppose the mutual self-destruction born of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. What better metaphor for peace and collaboration than an orchestra of young Arabs and Israelis making music together in an atmosphere of respect and dignity? As Barenboim recounts in Parallels and Paradoxes: "One of the Syrian kids told me that he'd never met an Israeli before and, for him, an Israeli is somebody who represents a negative example of what can happen to his country and what can happen to the Arab world. The same boy found himself sharing a music stand with an Israeli cellist... They were trying to do something together, something about which they both cared and about which they were both passionate... They already can't look at each other the same way, because they have a shared, common experience."

The orchestra was an experiment that began in Weimar in 1999 - it takes its name from a volume of work by Goethe, the first great poet to recognise the East as an equal, not an adversary. Arabs and Israelis, aged between 13 and 26, 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. This year, the orchestra came with the highest of professional accolades: the 2003 Royal Philharmonic Society award for large ensemble.

Seville in Andalucia, Spain - the only place in the world where Jews and Muslims lived together 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 concert programmes for fear of reprisals from friends or governments. However, Spain will now make diplomatic passports available as required. An objective of playing in Arab capitals has yet to be realised.

Said died last year. He saw this orchestra as the most important thing he had done in his life and, political overtones aside, it is remarkable. Barenboim galvanises the players, stamping his feet, thrashing his arms. Conducting from the keyboard, he produced a mesmerising performance of Beethoven's Third Piano Concerto. In Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, the elegance of phrasing, subtle string portamenti and passionate commitment said it all. The London Review of Books presented this tribute to Said, a writer and visionary long associated with the journal. Let's hope it becomes an annual homage.

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