“There are no checkpoints in the orchestra, there are no passport controls….”

Just to keep things light this week, this is the first of two musical features I want to highlight. They’re both about an hour and fifteen minutes long and both take as their subject a figure from music who’s been extraordinary. Today it is Daniel Barenboim.

The programme went out on BBC Four but n the UK it is still available on BBC iPlayer. It’s cribbed from previous materials edited to give full of human insight into Barenboim’s approach to his work and what he thinks his job as a conductor is.

“Musically speaking it’s not a question of power” he says “it’s a question of authority and responsibility.” Patience he later admits is not one of his strengths. He is, as he turns from the camera, “Uncouth”.

The highlight for me, and why I thought it worth posting on Slugger, is the orchestra he and Edward Said set up as a result of a project they did together in 1999, the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, now with a foundation headquartered in Seville.

Barenboim explains…

The Divan was created because in 1998, I said well I could imagine that you could organise a workshop for ten or fifteen young musicians, if not more, from Israel and the Arab world. Maybe I can ask my friend Edward Said to come and do some talks and a workshop and this would be a wonderful experiment? And we did that.

The Divan was born as a one time occasion, but it was such an overwhelming experience for everybody. You must understand, the Israeli Arabs, the Palestinian citizens of Israel, they had never met Palestinians from the territories, let alone Syrians, Egyptians. The Jews, the Israelis had never met. It was all for the first time.

If you are a Syrian Cellist and you sit next to an Israeli cellist, what do you do? You tune together. You try the same A, you try to play the same bowing, you try to play the same phrasing. This will not make you agree with the narrative of the other, but will give you a common basis on which you can start building a connection.

What the orchestra has, which does not exist on the ground, is equality. There are no checkpoints in the orchestra. There are no passport controls. If you have a first clarinet who is Palestinian, when he plays a solo in a Brahms symphony the whole orchestra, regardless of nationality wishes him well. Or for an Israeli it is the same.

This dialogue plays over the climax of this performance at the proms in 2014…

YouTube video

Just watch it, the whole way through. Watching each line come in instrument by instrument, is a sublime illustrations of what he’s talking about. It shows the power of culture in the hands of someone committed to the internal discipline of his art.

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