As the cycle of violence escalates, Barenboim takes his Arab-Israeli orchestra to play for peace

Daniel Barenboim was preparing himself for a "Concert for Peace" when the appalling news of the carnage began to filter through.

Amid the stunning beauty of the 2,000-year-old Teatro Romano in the Spanish city of Merida, the conductor was rehearsing his remarkable cross-cultural orchestra of 80 young Arab and Israeli musicians.

In Jerusalem, the scene was rather different. Rescue workers were frantically trying to save lives from the wreckage of the number two bus, blown apart by a Palestinian suicide bomber as it carried home ultra-orthodox Jews from prayers at the Western Wall. The attack, which killed 20, was to lead to yesterday's strike by Israel on a Hamas political leader and prompt Islamic militant groups to call off a rocky seven-week-old ceasefire.

Shai Wosner, a 27-year-old Israeli pianist, said: "I heard about the news almost straight away. We were just about to play in a very beautiful Roman theatre. It was very difficult for me to collect myself but then I felt that things like this orchestra were all the more important. They will make peace more real and more sustainable - whenever it comes."

Barenboim will take his young Arab-Israeli orchestra to perform for the first time in an Arab country this Sunday, by giving a concert in the Moroccan city of Rabat. The performance by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will be a landmark moment in the extraordinary campaign for peace that the Jewish conductor is driving forward with the writer Edward Said, his Palestinian friend.

Speaking in London yesterday, Barenboim said that the Rabat concert was of great importance. "I hope this Moroccan adventure is not only successful and pleasant for everybody but will be an example for all other countries in the Arab world and Israel to maybe find in themselves the courage and flexibility to make an exception for something that is to the advantage of the whole region."

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was set up five years ago to use music to bring Palestinians and Israelis closer together. But the musician harbours no illusions that music can provide a miracle cure for centuries of enmity. "We all know very well this is not going to solve the problems of the Middle East," Barenboim said yesterday. "Frankly, we are not interested in the political views of each and every one of the people that come and work with us, but the fact they come shows us that they are people who don't believe in a military solution to the conflict."

Ayelet Kabilio, 23, a viola player from Tel Aviv, said that the orchestra had become "like a big family". She said: "There are really warm feelings between each of us. We don't think about where we come from or the problems. It doesn't matter."

Hassan al-Fadel, 24, a double bass player from Syria, said that playing with the orchestra had been a great experience. "Mr Barenboim is a very important man in music," he said.

Barenboim has already risked his life to perform concerts at Ramallah, on the West Bank. These events caused uproar in certain quarters in Israel and the Jerusalem Post posed the question: "With friends like Barenboim, who needs enemies?" The concert in Rabat will go even further, by taking the orchestra on to Arab soil for the first time.

Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires in 1942 to parents of Russian descent. He started piano lessons with his mother at the age of five and two years later he gave his first official concert. The Barenboim family moved to Israel in 1952, but the child prodigy was soon taken to Salzburg, where he played for Wilhelm Furtwängler, who said: "The 11-year-old Barenboim is a phenomenon."

He made his debut as a professional pianist in Vienna in 1952 and became known as one of the most versatile performers of his generation, making tours of America and Europe. During the 1960s, he was a conductor for the English Chamber Orchestra and has gone on to be music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and chief conductor for life of the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Barenboim was married in 1967 to the brilliant Oxford-born musician Jacqueline du Pré, one of the world's best-known concert cellists. Time magazine described the marriage as "one of the most remarkable relationships, personal as well as professional, that music has known since the days of Clara and Robert Schumann".

But in 1973, Du Pré was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and she died in 1987 aged 42. Her story was told in a book called A Genius in the Family, written by her sister, Hilary, and brother, Piers, which was made into the 1998 film Hilary and Jackie, named after the cellist and her sister, a gifted flute player. The film, directed by Anand Tucker, was critically acclaimed but not enjoyed by Barenboim, who was played by James Frain.

Before Barenboim and his orchestra arrive in Morocco this weekend, they will perform tonight at the Royal Albert Hall as part of the BBC Proms. Nicholas Kenyon, director of the proms, said the performance would be an "incredible and symbolic occasion". Barenboim will conduct the prom and feature as a soloist in Mozart's Concerto for Three Pianos, with Saleem Abboud-Ashkar (a Palestinian) and Mr Wosner (an Israeli). The prom is part of the orchestra's annual European summer school, which involved the musicians gathering for a series of workshops and rehearsals in a former Catholic seminary near Seville.

"I have long believed that there can be no military solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, neither strategically nor morally," Barenboim said. "If I am right, then sooner or later the two sides will have to establish some kind of contact - cultural, economic, scientific or whatever. I think, so much blood has flowed, why do we have to wait for that? Why do we have to wait for the politicians, if we can do something now?" He has been privately critical of Israeli policy ever since he heard the Israeli prime minister Golda Meir's statement in 1970 that there was "no such thing as a Palestinian people".

Speaking more recently, he said: "Even though the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 was an act of universal justice, it has to be recognised that it has been achieved at the price of displacement, grief and tragedy for others."

Peace performances

U2

Bono, the band's frontman, helped to bring the two sides in Northern Ireland together by performing in the "Yes" Campaign concert in Belfast in 1998, for the Good Friday Agreement referendum. The Republic of Ireland-born singer held hands with the Ulster Unionist Party leader, David Trimble, and the SDLP's leader John Hume.

Bob Marley

He helped to ease political tensions in Jamaica when he performed in the One Love peace concert in Jamaica in 1978. The concert was an attempt to stop civil war breaking out at a time when gun law ruled. The reggae star performed the "miracle" of getting the then Prime Minister, Michael Manley, and the leader of the opposition, Edward Seaga, to shake hands on stage.

Nigel Kennedy

The classical violinist received an ecstatic reception in Belgrade in June 1999 during "a non-political concert for peace". He was the first international celebrity to perform there after the war with Nato.

UB40

In December 2002, UB40 celebrated a year of peace between the Tamils and the Sinhalese in Sri Lanka at the Premadasa cricket stadium. The band became the biggest foreign act ever to appear in the country.

Rock Against Racism

In 1978, 100,000 marched from Trafalgar Square to the East End for the Carnival Against the Nazis, featuring X-Ray Spex, the Clash and Tom Robinson.

Imogen Lillywhite

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