Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Struggles With Tense Times

Classic Arts News   Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Struggles With Tense Times
Even the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, co-founded in 1999 by Daniel Barenboim and the Palestinian-American writer Edward Said (who died in 2003) as a gesture of unity between musicians in the troubled Middle East, is facing tense times during the current conflict between Hezbollah and Israel, reports the BBC.

Approximately half the orchestra's 100 musicians are Jewish Israelis while most of the rest are Palestinians and Arabs from Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

The ensemble has performed extensively in Europe, the Americas and the Near East, including an appearance at last year's BBC Proms. The orchestra and Barenboim are currently on a tour that will take in Madrid, Paris, Berlin and Milan; last week's performance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Madrid's Plaza Mayor drew 6,000 listeners, according to the BBC.

Before embarking on the tour, the orchestra rehearsed at their base in a former Catholic seminary outside Seville. According to the BBC, Barenboim, who holds dual Israeli and Spanish citizenship, believes Andalusia is the ideal home for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra because of the historic coexistence in the region of Islamic, Christian and Jewish cultures.

This year, feelings in the musicians' ranks were understandably tense. According to the BBC, one Israeli player from the Northern Galilee, an area frequently hit by Hezbollah rockets, was unable to contact his family, while the Israeli military's heavy attacks on Lebanon and recent incursions into the Gaza Strip angered many of the Palestinian musicians.

A statement drafted by Barenboim and Edward Said's widow Mariam on behalf of the musicians will be published in the programs on the tour: the text condemns the killing of civilians in both Israel and Lebanon. According to the BBC, all of the players were in favor of the statement's general idea — "Everyone agreed that to say nothing would be like fiddling while Lebanon and Northern Galilee burned," as the report put it — but strong disagreement quickly arose over the details. Some Israeli orchestra members felt that the almost one million people who have fled Galilee to avoid Hezbollah's rockets deserved stronger support; some Palestinian players wanted a condemnation of Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank.

Israeli academic Avi Shlaim and the Palestinian writer Raja Shehada, both of whom gave seminars with the orchestra during the rehearsal period in Seville, negotiated with Barenboim on behalf of the musicians. Yet the original text of the statement eventually prevailed.

"I know people will say I'm just a naive musician and that I am making empty gestures that won't change anything in the Middle East," Barenboim told the BBC. "But what about those who believe that dropping bombs and firing rockets are the solution? I ask you — who is the more naive?"

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