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London Review of Books Edward Said Memorial Concert: Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim (piano & conductor), Barbican 4th August 2004 (MB)


Some of the greatest musical events are born out of unlikely partnerships: Hermann Levi and Wagner’s Parsifal was one, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a Palestinian-Israeli youth orchestra, is another. Founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim and the writer Edward Said their aim was to build a workshop for young musicians from different countries of the Middle East and in so doing foster and encourage mutual understanding between politically opposed peoples. Developing both musical abilities and instilling a spirit of harmony are its core principles, though neither co-founder believed from the outset that the orchestra would, or could, act as a political lever to encourage greater tolerance in a region ravaged by religious and political difference, dissent and war.


Indeed, as Daniel Barenboim mentioned in his speech at the end of the concert the orchestra has yet to play in any Middle Eastern country, though elsewhere it is greeted with sold out concert halls (the queue for returns was enormous) and long standing ovations (as at this Barbican concert.) Deriving its name from Goethe’s West-Ostlicher Divan, a synthesis of Islamic and European poetry, and originally located in Weimar, but now Seville – a symbolic place of Jewish and Muslim harmony – it is one of the most profound attempts at addressing the cultural and political futures of divided nationhood in any art form.


Were these noble ideals not enough, one should also not question that musically and artistically the partnership between Barenboim and the orchestra is world-class. Indeed, this concert – certainly one of the most moving this reviewer has ever attended – was exceptional on every level.


Daniel Barenboim can be an uneven pianist, but on his day there are few able to match him for the depth he can bring to some of the cornerstones of the repertoire. And so it was for Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto, a performance that if not technically perfect (Barenboim’s finger-work is not as fleet as it once was) shone musically (how superbly Barenboim and his orchestra placed dynamics, for example.) From the outset, Barenboim was defiant giving great weight – Teutonic weight – to the opening statement for orchestra. Even with suitably reduced strings (just four double-basses) this orchestra plays with a rich sonority, its sound closer to that of a German orchestra than to any Middle Eastern orchestra I have heard. And yet, the Mozartian second subject had all the delicacy of a feather, the timpanist in particular (orchestra members are not named in any programme) using a refined combination of soft and hard stick playing to define the underlying mood of the music – mirroring the softly-toned piano cascades and darkly sustained strings in the first movement’s coda to dance-like C major close of the finale. The serenity of the limpid second movement brought outstanding woodwind playing from the bassoon and flute, a hallmark of this orchestra’s beautifully blended sound.


Tchaikovsky’s Fifth is a challenge for any orchestra – indeed, has any of the great symphonies ever seemed so problematical for conductor, orchestra and audience alike as Tchaikovsky’s Fifth? Yet, the performance we got from Barenboim and his young players was not just incandescent; it was positively life affirming, solving some of the problems with the finale – with its breathtakingly bombastic conclusion – with blisteringly precise and goldenly toned brass playing that was unqualifyingly cheerful in its scope. Throughout the first movement Barenboim had been attentive to Tchaikovsky’s markings – superbly built crescendi, meltingly phrased cantabile, fluent drama – but again and again it was the expertly placed dynamics that removed the performance from the norm. The storm that explodes from the main theme of the transition was wild, yet its counterpart, the dark diminuendo of the coda, had a sense of abject tragedy to it that showcased the wide spectrum of the orchestra’s dynamics (helped in part by the antiphonal placing of violins.)


Similar values shone through the andante – from a beautifully toned horn solo, to swinging pizzicato chords on strings and rhythmically charged woodwind playing. The valse was especially notable for a superb bassoon solo, giving, perhaps for the first time in the many performances I have heard of this work, the spontaneous feeling of passion in a movement that largely derides this mood. In the finale itself – majestic, climactic, grand and so highly coloured – the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra showed no difficulty in highlighting the hysteria that makes it such an unrestrained joy.


Encores were inevitable – and they showcased the orchestra’s strengths wonderfully: a beautifully toned Valse triste by Sibelius and a highly-charged and volatile performance of the overture to The Force of Destiny.


It was an outstanding concert that summed up more acutely than words could the belief that music has the power to unite people beyond the turmoil of division and dissension. Here was a group of 80 musicians – of differing ethnic backgrounds – who were united in a single musical and artistic vision. As Barenboim said, Israelis and Palestinians must travel on the same path and believe that what is good for an Israeli is also good for a Palestinian and vice versa. One sensed that these young musicians have done exactly that.


Marc Bridle

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