In 1999, conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim founded the East-Western Divan Orchestra with the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, as “a project against ignorance.”
Composed largely of young Arab and Israeli musicians, it is attacked and praised from all sides — “so there must be something we are doing right,” said Barenboim, who is also music director of the Staatsoper and the Staatskapelle Berlin. We spoke while he was on tour with Divan.
Q: For you, what would constitute justice in the Middle East?
A: It would be first to understand that we don’t have a national, political or military conflict. We have a human conflict between two peoples who are deeply convinced they have the right to live on the same little piece of land. So far, so good.
Q: A conundrum.
A: The problem is they both think they have the right to live there exclusively. … The only thing we can do is realize that we are blessed, or cursed, to be living either together, or side by side, but not back to back.
Q: When you started the Divan project, you got 200 applications from Arab musicians. I was amazed there were so many in the Middle East studying the works of Mozart and Beethoven.
A: Even Edward Said, who knew practically everything there was to know about the Arab world, did not really know the quality nor the quantity of the western music talent in the Middle East.
Q: Divan began 14 years ago: what is your greatest pleasure from it now?
A: It’s become one of the major orchestras. It plays Schoenberg Variations, Beethoven symphonies, pieces by Boulez around the world. Musically, it’s wonderful. It’s sad to see that we’re swimming against the current. In the Middle East no one wants to have anything to do with it. The orchestra cannot play in any of the countries that are represented in it. This is a very big minus.
Q: Do you think that will change in your lifetime?
A: You never know. The Middle East has one saving grace: When things happen, they happen unexpectedly and very fast.
Q: Is it a problem for musicians to be in your orchestra? What happens when they return home?
A: Many of them are criticized very thoroughly. The whole idea of the project is both admired and criticized on an even level, both in Israel and in the Arab world.
Q: You are threatening their mutual demonization?
Q: Tell me about the academy you are building in Berlin.
A: It’s a center for musicians who will also get tuition in areas not directly connected to music. Both Edward Said and I shared a horror of music being put in an ivory tower.
When an orchestra plays wonderfully together, people think they have a homogeneous sound. Nonsense! They have arrived at a point where they can think alike and this is why they sound homogeneous.
Q: So, you’re teaching musicians philosophy?
A: Yes. Music is not only about aesthetics, about being beautiful. As Freud said, culture is a larger reality, not an escape from reality.
Q: What kind of design did Frank Gehry create for you?
A: It’s a unique concert hall: it’s like the most imaginative, contemporary living room, with a beautiful oval shape. It’s small — only about 700 seats.
Q: You’ve taken a lot of heat for playing Wagner in Israel. Is that changing?
A: You should ask the Israelis! I’m sick and tired of it! … I am not a Wagner Messiah. The Israel Festival invited me to conduct a Wagner concert in Jerusalem in 2001 in July. In April, they said the Ministry of Education threatened to cut their subsidies if they allowed me to play.
Q: So opinion is divided?
A: There are some decisions that are absolutely correct at the given moment but are not meant to stay forever.
When the musicians of the then Philharmonic Orchestra in Tel Aviv decided not to play Wagner, it was on the 9th of November 1938, when the Nazis burned Jewish books and synagogues. Then, it was a perfectly courageous, correct decision. In 2013, it’s absolute nonsense.
Q: Is the fear that people will forget?
A: If you want people not to forget, don’t build monuments. Help the Jewish people in the problems of today. People will look at monuments and pass by — it’s better to do something constructive.
It is in this spirit that the German government has given us money to build the academy.