Daniel Barenboim's Israeli-Arab orchestra remains controversial

  • Updated: March 10, 2013 - 5:01 PM

Famed conductor says he’s “swimming against the current.”


In this photo made available Wednesday, Feb. 6, 2013, German President Joachim Gauck, right, presents the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany Music Director of the Berlin State Opera Daniel Barenboim, left, at Bellevue Palace in Berlin, Germany. The Argentine-Israeli conductor and pianist was awarded the Grand Merit Cross with Star and Sash on the occasion of his 70th Birthday. (AP Photo/dpa, Wolfgang Kumm) ORG XMIT: MIN2013030809381211

Photo: Wolfgang Kumm, Dml - Associated Press - Ap

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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.

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