West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

About eight years ago, I read Paradoxes and Paradigms and was inspired by the conversations between Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said. Now, after having sat on the Carnegie Hall stage with the Westminster Symphonic Choir and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra preparing for a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, I am elated to have traveled this full circle.The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (named after an anthology of poems by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe) is a youth orchestra made up of musicians from countries in the Middle East and Spain (the organization is based in Seville).  Daniel Barenboim (who is Argentine-Israeli) and Edward Said (Palestinian-American) founded the organization in 1999, in an effort to promote understanding between Israelis and Palestinians.  Barenboim describes the ensemble:

“The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn’t. It’s not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I’m not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I’m] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to – and unfortunately I am alone in this now that Edward died a few years ago – …create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives.”

In Paradoxes and Paradigms, the two men describe the first rehearsals of the ensemble, which came to blows between musicians of differing nationalities.  The Palestinians and Israelis could not, at first, physically stand to be in one another’s presence.  After much arguing and music-making, Beethoven started to win (the orchestra, and Barenboim, specialize in interpreting this master’s symphonic works).

Now, 14 years after its inaugural season, we students sat on the Carnegie stage with this orchestra and Barenboim on the podium.  His gestures were at times raw and powerful, and, when the music called for it, as gentle as hands holding a small bird.  There were a couple of moments, one in the second movement of the Ninth Symphony and another time in the fourth movement, where he actually stopped conducting.  He leaned back, hand on the rail, and let the orchestra completely go.  He connected with every player and singer on the stage, and at the final bows, physically shook hands with each member of the orchestra (that took quite a while, but the audience didn’t stop the applause for a moment).

As we prepared for this work in The Playhouse on campus, Dr. Miller spent a large amount of valuable rehearsal time making absolutely sure we understood the translations, the context and the musical gravitas of every word sung.  The resulting performance was worthy of the orchestra with whom we shared the music, and the audience for whom we spent our energy.

You can listen to a recording of the WQXR performance broadcast.

About Westminster Choir

Westminster Choir is composed of students at Westminster Choir College of Rider University, a center for music study in Princeton, N.J.
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