Magazine article The Spectator

Behind Closed Doors with the Maestro

Magazine article The Spectator

Behind Closed Doors with the Maestro

Article excerpt

'I t has to do with the condition of being human, ' Daniel Barenboim smiles, looking remarkably relaxed for someone who's just battled through rush-hour traffic from Stansted. The conductor, along with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, is in London on the latest stop of a European tour, but instead of resting before the next day's epic Proms programme of Haydn, Schoenberg and Brahms, the 65-year-old maestro is now in a hotel near the Royal Albert Hall, deep in animated discussion about one of his favourite topics: the power of music and, yes, the human condition.

Not that we should be surprised: Barenboim's energy is as legendary as his intellectual curiosity. As one of the world's great conductors, pianists and recording artists, his output remains formidable, and he has recently published a new book: Everything Is Connected. A collection of beautifully written essays, its central idea is that although music -- as merely 'sonorous air' -- is powerless in and of itself, it can 'teach us to think in a way that is a school for life'. In music, so the argument goes, you cannot express yourself without listening to others and respecting their 'voice'. Legato denotes boundaries.

Tempo, the speed of a process. Dynamics, the volume at which your voice may or may not overpower another. The symphony orchestra, Barenboim deduces, is therefore an alternative 'template for democracy'; and his particular orchestra -- comprised as it is of 120 young Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Iranians -- perhaps the unlikely archetype.

Described as both a 'realisation of the impossible' and as a 'metaphor for the possible', the West-Eastern Divan was originally conceived by the Israeli Barenboim and the late Palestinian academic Edward Said as a one-off workshop in 1999. So much has been written about the political significance of the ensemble since that it is easy to forget what a force they have become as musicians. But Barenboim would never stand for less. At rehearsals on Prom day itself, where he sports a casual stripey T-shirt and does not bother with orchestral scores, so ingrained is this music on his soul, he is witty and approachable, but merciless. At one point during the Schoenberg Variations he turns furiously to the second violins and cries, 'Desks 3 and 4, I can't wait for you! You're holding everybody up!' Afterwards, one of those hapless fiddlers -- a Syrian -- confides in me, 'You know, he expects from us the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic.' She then adds with woeful understatement: 'It's very hard.' I'll say. Many of these kids come from places where even the concept of music lessons is a luxury; some have been learning instruments for just a few years. It is testament to Barenboim's absolute faith in their talent that he's chucking Schoenberg, one of the repertoire's trickiest composers, their way. 'It's true, he treats us like we are the Berlin Phil, ' admits Israeli violinist Guy Braunstein, who should know: he has also played under Barenboim's baton with the Germans. 'And does the orchestra mind?' I ask, at which Braunstein laughs.

'Of course not. We love it.' Backstage, the West-Eastern Divan are like any other youth orchestra: rehearsal over, they're busy sending texts, laughing, making lunch plans. They're noisy, chattering in a multitude of languages, but interestingly -- and contrary to criticisms of the project, which claim cultural apartheid persists within its ranks -- there seem to be no obvious demarcations. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.