Tuesday, April 24, 2012

daniel barenboim and jon snow talk music and politics at SOAS

Update: on 25 April 2012 Katara, the cultural village in Qatar, abruptly announced that "against the backdrop of the current political developments across the Arab region", it had cancelled the five-day Music and Dialogue Festival it was to have held from 30 April to 4 May. Barenboim and the  West-Eastern Divan Orchestra gave concerts in Qatar in 2010 and 2011, and were due to return there for a prominent role in the Festival. There was speculation as to the reasons for the cancellation. The Doha News said ticket-holders would be reimbursed. This blog post includes some details of earlier political controversy over Barenboim's mixed Israeli-Arab-Spanish orchestra of young musicians.

On Saturday the renowned Argentine-born pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim was in conversation with Channel 4 TV News presenter Jon Snow in the Brunei Gallery of London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). The event, hosted by SOAS’s London Middle East Institute, was organised at short notice and was live streamed on the SOAS website for those who could not make it in person. The LMEI notice of the event said that Barenboim “uniquely, holds both Israeli and Palestinian citizenship” and that he is recognised for his work as a musical bridge builder, especially for his work in the Middle East and through the Barenboim-Said Foundation. He received a SOAS Honorary Doctorate in 2008.

Barenboim, who turns 70 in November, has for half a century been famous the world over for his piano performances and  conducting. But in the 21st century he has also become famed as the co-founder, with the late Palestinian intellectual, activist and music lover Professor Edward Said, of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra (WEDO) which takes its name from the title of a Goethe poetry cycle. WEDO brings together young Israeli, Palestinian, Arab and Spanish musicians. It has achieved a sharply rising international profile since beginning in 1999 as a workshop for young  Middle Eastern musicians organised by Barenboim and Said in the German city of Weimar, Germany, at the invitation of Kunstfest Weimar. Since 2002 the Orchestra has been based in Seville, where it is supported by the regional government of Andalucia.

This summer the Orchestra, conducted by Barenboim, has a starring role at the annual BBC Proms. The orchestra will perform all nine of Beethoven's symphonies, starting on Friday 20 July.and culminating with the performance of the Ninth, the Ode to Joy, on 27 July - the night of the 2012 London Olympic Games opening ceremony.

The Proms programme says Beethoven's Ninth is "perhaps the richest, most provocative statement in Western art music. An impressive team of soloists joins the National Youth Choir of Great Britain and the West–Eastern Divan Orchestra to project the finale's inclusive vision of hope, reconciliation and hard-won triumph. What better to mark today's opening of the London 2012 Olympics than Beethoven's ultimate hymn to universal brotherhood?"

Barenboim has been music director of the Berlin Staatskapelle since 1992 and conductor for life since 2000. Last week the Staatskapelle gave three concerts in London at the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall, with Barenboim conducting  Bruckner's last three Symphonies 7,8 and 9 and performing two Mozart piano concertos. The concerts drew rave reviews, with Stephen Pritchard writing in yesterday's Observer: “the length of the seventh symphony gave us ample opportunity to enjoy the fantastic sound that Barenboim draws from this orchestra, the depth of the string playing evident right from the opening cello and viola theme, the woodwind singing beatifically, the brass in full pomp.”

A film on WEDO was screened as the audience entered the Brunei Gallery and waited for Barenboim and Snow to appear. The invitation to the encounter said it would be on “the role of culture and the arts in a political and international context focussing on the situation and recent developments in the Middle East.” In the event Barenboim maintained an energetic tempo as he embarked on a flow of  memories, anecdotes and analysis.

Barenboim described how he first met Edward Said some 20 years ago when Said approached him in the lobby of the then Hyde Park Hotel in London's Knightsbridge. Barenboim was already familiar with Said's work, notably his book Orientalism, and Said told him he had read and been impressed by Barenboim's 1992 memoir A Life in Music and that he had "never heard Israelis talk like this". This was the start of  a  friendship that would last until Said's death from leukemia in 2003, at the age of 67. Dialogues between the two  were published in the 2002 book Parallels and Paradoxes: Explorations in Music and Society.A revised and updated edition of  Barenboim's  A Life in Music, including his friendship with Said and their joint endeavours, appeared in 2003.

Barenboim devoted considerable time during his conversation with Snow to depicting the internal changes he witnessed in Israel in the 60 years after he arrived in Israel from Argentina in 1952 as a 10-year-old. At that time Jewish immigrants to Israel were mainly of Central and Eastern European origin. He recalls that in those days the Holocaust was never spoken about by, for example, his friends' parents. But as a result of the trial and execution in Israel of Adolf Eichmann in 1961 this changed and the new generation started to come to terms with the Holocaust.

He said "when one talks about the modern state of Israel one has to talk about it in two periods" -  from 1948 until 1967, or  1977 (when Likud came to power), and the period since then. The socialist nature of Israel changed after  the 1967 war when Israel started to use cheap Palestinian labour, and some Israelis amassed fortunes. The question was, should Israel hold on to the occupied territories. Likud and the religious parties started to rise, with the latter stressing territories were not occupied but "biblically liberated". 

After the 1967 war French support was replaced by American and  Israel became more US-oriented. Jews from Brooklyn arrived, "some with a very right-wing mentality". Soviet Jews, who had suffered a great deal of anti-Semitism, arrived  "with a similar right wing way of thinking." The combination of right wing US Jewry and the vision of Soviet Jewry "changed completely the makeup of Israeli society".

Snow asked: "If you look at present day Israel and the makeup of the country now, what percentage is left of that original secular European idyll?" Barenboim said he did not know precisely, "but you have the feeling that most Israeli enlightened people vote with their feet by leaving the country. They don't vote at the elections - they simply go." He gave the case of Jerusalem as an example of the change in Israel.  "When I was very young I used to go to the lectures at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem of Martin Buber  and Max Brod.  All  this has disappeared". Jerusalem is "now mostly a religious village from the Jewish side." And with the passage of time and the changes inside Israel, "many Israelis have actually lost the idea of what life is for the Palestinians, especially since 1967."

Barenboim said as an Israeli he views the Israeli politicisation of the remembrance of the Holocaust with much "abhorrence". He said: "Everything now has to be explained to the world in terms of the trauma that all the Jewish people suffered because of the Holocaust. I’m certainly in no way reducing the horror of the Holocaust, but to say that we cannot go to the peace table with the Palestinians because ... we must avoid a second Holocaust... As if Palestinians’ lack of acceptance of so many things to do with Israel –in a way, in an extreme case, even about the existence of the State of Israel - to equate that with European anti-Semitism is totally wrong, and it is against all the traditions of Jewish thought and morality."

Snow found it "very interesting" that "the Holocaust is now such a central plank of the ideological argument and you're saying that in your childhood it wasn't at all."

Barenboim said: It was never  mentioned." As an example of the politicisation of the  remembrance of the Holocaust he cited the problems he had experienced trying to conduct peformances of Wagner in Israel, where there is a in effect a ban on performing Wagner's works. He broke the ban with a concert at the Israel Festival in July 2001 when he conducted the Berlin Staatskapelle orchestra  in a second encore played the overture to Tristan and Isolde, after announcing that he was going to do so and giving members of the audience the chance to leave. He caused outrage to some members of the audience and to the then prime minister Ariel Sharon, the then Mayor of Jerusalem Ehud Olmert and other politicians.

"The argument is, for better or worse, there is an inevitable association between Wagner's music and the Nazi regime. True. Therefore, whether the association was only used or abused is of no interest - what is [of interest] is that this has had such an impact on memory that it cannot be expected of survivors of the Holocaust to face the music of Richard Wagner being played on Israeli soil.

"First of all, I don't know what gives the government the right to decide what it tolerable or intolerable for someone who has suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. I'm perfectly in agreement with the fact that as long as this generation are alive there is no need to confront people with  the obligation to go and hear Wagner. I would be against any Israeli orchestra playing Wagner in a subscription concert, if you are a loyal subscriber and have a ticket for 12 concerts a year ... why should you be faced with it suddenly the work of Richard Wagner."

But if someone buys a ticket specifically for a Wagner concert, "where is the problem? If I suffer from this terrible association [with Wagner's music] then I don't go, but why should I be able to impose on  you,  or why should I allow the government to stop you from going?" Barenboim added that  "when this subject is mentioned I always give the example of the great Jewish Hungarian writer Imre Kertész who was in Auschwitz and suffered the horrors of the Holocaust. When I met him, the first thing he asked of me was to help him get a ticket to Bayreuth" (the annual Bayreuth Festival is devoted to performances of Wagner operas).
Jon Snow asked - what happened to your personal journey within this evolving environment for Israel?

Barenboim said that when he arrived in Israel aged 10 he did not have the intellectual capacity to check all the Israeli narrative of its founding. "In fact because of this narrative I believe that so many opportunities were missed  by the Israeli government in the 1950s. This by the way I think is very objectively and very clearly described in Avi Shlaim's book The Iron Wall - there were so many opportunities that got missed to make contact with the Arabs."

He said Israel had missed the opportunities offered by three revolutionary developments in Egyptian society: with Nasser after the 1952 revolution - "In his programme the word Israel was not even mentioned he was interested in the social conditions of his people etc etc." -  with Sadat after his 1977 visit to Jerusalem, "and the third was last year." Instead of saluting the Egyptian revolution, "you heard a lot from Israeli leaders about the dangers of this revolution."  He added: "We don't know what will be the end of the Arab revolution in Egypt,  and now Syria. But there mere fact that a soicety basically of 80 million poeple is able peacefully to go to Tahrir Square and demand change for themselves, better conditions of life, not only economically but also freedom - this has to be saluted. The first thing you have to do in a case like this both morally, and strategically if I may say so from Israel's point of view, it should have saluted that. But to immediately say "we are concerned about this", what do you expect people to think?"

When Jon Snow asked "At what point did Palestine begin to invade your music?" Barenboim stressed that his journey away from the official Israeli narrative had begun long before he met Edward Said. He said he became aware of the lack of knowledge that he and his generation had of the Palestinians when he was in Australia during Black September 1970 when "so many thousands of Palestinians were killed by the Jordanians. And the then Israeli prime minister Golda Meir said in an interview 'what is this talk about the Palestinians, there is no such thing as the Palestinian people – we are the Palestinian people because we live in what used to be Palestine.' I thought, 'just a moment, I have missed on something here" so I started educating myself and it was not so easy because the [Israeli] New Historians ... [with] so many documents and so many different analyses were not in existence."

He told the story of a "very interesting meeting" he had with two young Syrian musicians in Prague in 1966, a year before the 1967 war, where he performed a concert with the English Chamber Orchestra and where the following day there was to be a concert by the pianist Arthur Rubinstein with the Czech Philharmonic.  "I had finished a rehearsal with the English Chamber Orchestra and two young men my age, I was 23, came and introduced themselves and said they were young musicians from Syria. I had never met a Syrian in my life and had no idea there were Syrian Western musicians. But they were very charming, and so we went out for coffee and after the English Chamber concert, which of course I invited them to, they asked me whether I could help them get into the rehearsal of Arthur Rubinstein. I said yes, I’m going to the rehearsal and you can come with me.  I got to Rubinstein rehearsal with my two new Syrian friends and after the rehearsal I greeted Rubenstein and said 'these are two young musicians from Syria'. He said 'musicians from Syria?' And he was so taken by it that he invited them to lunch, for which unfortunately I couldn’t stay. Then came the war and I lost all touch, contact. One of them became the director of the Conservatory in Damascus, and  33 years later when Edward Said and I founded the Divan he was very important in encouraging young Syrian musicians to come to the Divan."

When Jon Snow said of Barenboim's first meeting 20 years ago with Said "from it sprang the orchestra", Barenboim said "this is again one of those legends that is not much to do with reality." The idea that they set out to establish an orchestra was "rubbish". Rather, in 1999 when Weimar was declared the cultural capital of Europe the authorities running the cultural programme there requested that a forum be created "where young people from the Middle East – Israel, Palestine, Syria, and other countries - would come together for a seminar, for a workshop, of music making and conversation on humanistic subjects and of course politics. And we thought of somewhere between 10 and 15 young musicians .. and this is how we really got started on the idea."

At that point they knew "a lot more about the musical standards of Israelis than about Arabs; even Edward, who knew everything there is to know about the Arab world, had no idea about the level.." They decided to ask the Goethe Institute – the cultural arm of the German government – to help them carry out auditions in the Arab countries.

Barenboim asked his then assistant Sebastian Weigle - now music director of the Frankfurt Opera - to carry out these auditions. Weigle went to Damascus, Beirut, Amman and Cairo on an expedition financed by the Goethe Institute. "To my surprise and Edward’s we had more than 200 applications from these four countries. Over 200 applications, for a workshop with Edward Said and with me for two or three weeks in Weimar in 1999."

Wegle visited many of the applicants, while others sent tapes, video or audio. He reduced the applications from 200 to 60 and then down to 40 or 30.  " And I listened to those and I made the final selection. And then and only then did we send him to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem" to audition young musicians there. "And that was my first surprise – that the best of the Arab musicians were no less good than the Israelis although in Israel there was a much greater tradition of music."  From the final pool of musicians they identified "we had to make an orchestra. There was no way we could justify the selection from that group of only 10 or 15, to make chamber music – so the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra started."

Even in negative or depressed moods he is encouraged "that we must be doing something right since we have more or less equal support, and equal level of criticism." Telling the story of the beginnings of the Divan he said that when the musicians came to Weimar in 1999, up to 70 per cent of them had never played in an orchestra, and 40 per cent had never heard a live concert. And they were confronted with the 7th symphony of Beethoven and the Schumann Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma."

 Yo-Yo was completely fascinated by the idea of the Orchestra and "played a wonderful role" whether in classes or outside them. There was a 15-year-old boy from the region who took classes with Yo-Yo in Weimar [Kyril Zlotnikov] and is today the principal cellist at the Berlin Staatskapelle. It’s really quite wonderful."

Barenboim asked how it was possible that over a period of eight years the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra had managed to go from an Orchestra up to 70 per cent of whose members had never previously played in an orchestra to playing the most difficult works in the repertoire – the Schoenberg variations – at the 2007 Salzburg Festival to a high level. He attributed this to the Orchestra building "a strategy for the development of the musicians in a way that is quite unique" in which the young musicians are trained by principal musicians from other orchestras and are followed through in subsequent years.

Jon Snow asked: "Do you think that this could be extended to other parts of intercommunal life or does it have to take something with the extreme excellence, which kind of moves it from the political fray?"

 Barenboim replied: "It's not the excellence, it’s the fact that music is in the end in my view a unique combination of the most personal that is possible for a human being with the most abstract at the same time. You and I may view certain events in the world differently and we may have different ideas, about intellectual matters, about economic matters, and also about music, but when you and I are sitting on the same stand of a string section in an orchestra the music is more important than you and I and the music is responsible for the fact that at that moment you and I are going to think alike. You and I play the same notes with the same bowing movement, with the the same intonation, the same volume, the same length .the same expression, the same the same the same the same, and we do that for six or seven hours every day for three weeks we acquire the ability to think alike about something which you and I are every passionate about. I don’t know how you would do that without the music."

 Jon Snow asked what the students talk about: "do you earwig in on conversations at supper afterwards?
Barenboim said: "The only thing I can say is that we have stopped talking about the conflict because we have done that for so many years we know what everybody thinks. We know what everybody expects and we have simply learned to accept the fact that somebody who we actually like, in some cases are even attracted to, will continue to disagree about this and we have learned to spend time together knowing that we disagree, that we will not attempt any more to convince the other one about it. But that they know that whether we like it or not we are blessed or cursed with living in a way that we have some kind of contact with each other. This is what it does." He added that "it is not an orchestra for peace."

Snow commented: "You’ve taken us to the very heart of what I think both mystifies and excites everybody in this room about you – you’ve described exactly what happens to a musician, the whole business of being six or seven hours sharing a stand, absorbed in this experience, sharing this experience, and one senses that for many that detaches them from the real world and they live in this gorgeous arena –  it's hard work, but nevertheless utterly uplifting and so on – so what it is about you that enabled you to connect with the conflict – most musicians are not connected to ...?

Barenboim said the strength of music is that while it is a very spiritual activity, and has the ability to inspire human beings, it is at the same time "extraordinarily physical, in the end purely physical". When young people engage in music together, with its physical expression, this is different formn for example their doing philosophy together for six or seven hours.

"And the basis of my friendship with Edward Said was that we were very unhappy about many things, but about two things in particular – one was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in all its aspects and ramifications, and the lack of curiosity – on both sides. Of course there are many aspects of the conflict that are asymmetrical, starting with the fact that Israel is a powerful nation and the Palestinians haven’t got a nation as yet. But there are some aspects of the conflict that are absolutely symmetrical and the first aspect that is symmetrical is the lack of curiosity about the other. And Edward and I were very concerned about that."

The second subject "that bothered us very much, and still continues to bother me - in fact more and more as the years go by - is that music has been seen for many years, and is becoming so much more so now, as an expression of an ivory tower. In other words there is no music education in schools. ..And on the other hand you have children who have an aptitude for music and maybe ambitious parents and they send them to the conservatory, and academies, to study music. And they study music also in an ivory tower. They are taught how to play hemi-demi-semi quavers- softly, loudly, short notes, long notes, powerfully, sentimentally, etc etc but they are completely ignorant of everything else that has actually been happening next to it – literature, painting, philosophy, all of that. I am not trying to say that you can explain the Beethoven symphonies from a philosophical system point of view but it is obvious is not only a factor of harmony and counterpoint, but an important statement to make, and that statement must have had some connection with statements made by other great men at that time and the mere fact that today so many hundreds of years later we are still interested in the Beethoven symphonies and those of us who are musicians continue to work on them and those who are listeners listen to them, there must be something about them. But all this is totally absent from the musical education at conservatories.

"Now when you put that together with the conflict.. also with  each one is also in his ivory tower -  the Israeli in his ivory tower, and the Arabs in theirs .. it is absolutely essential to put all this together and this is what Divan is about."

There was little time for the two men to converse in detail about the current situation and the rising temperature in the Middle East including over the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran. As Snow said in  his concluding remarks: "Well you’ve elegantly pulled us into the Finale direct from the Overture: there is so much more of the symphony to do but somehow we have talked for an hour. Somehow the journey you have taken us on is not the journey I expected." Snow observed that the way Israel has evolved is not often talked about in the way Barenboim had done. "In understanding how Israel has evolved maybe one understands how it could engage more." Snow thought the fact that Barenboim had talked about something which  transcends the conflict and which pulls people from both communities together - which "de-ivory towers" could offer hope and optimism.

When Snow asked Barenboim "are you optimistic about the Middle East, or downcast?" Barenboim simply replied: "Optimism sometimes is a form of self-defence."

During the question and answer session a member of the audience asked whether the same body of musicians was kept in the Divan from one year to the next, or whether some leave and some new come in. Barenboim replied: "The orchestra got much too good for us to be able to find new musicians in the area that up to the standard without taking a very clear decision to lower the standard which obviously I was not prepared to do. But one of the musicians in one of our orchestras maybe three years ago addressed this subject and expressed unhappiness about the fact that there was much less change and therefore there were less new musicians able to come in. And when I explained to him that I was not willing to make the decision to lower the standards he said well then why don’t you make another orchestra. Very simple. So I took his advice and we created a second orchestra of younger players less experienced... It’s called Al-Andalus Orchestra because it’s from Andalucia.

The Orchestra's first concert in an Arab country came in August 2003 when it gave a concert in Rabat, Morocco. In 2005 it performed in the Mashreq for the first time with a concert in Ramallah, Palestine, which was broadcast live by ARTE. Its first-ever Gulf concert took place in Doha in January 2010; Al-Jazeera English reported on the concert and the difficulties for the Orchestra in playing in Arab countries. Regarding the prospects of further concerts in the Arab world, Said's widow Mariam Said told Al-Jazeera: "If I want to be candid with you it's not going to happen in the Arab countries in the near future. Realistically speaking the situation is becoming more complex, more dire after the assault on Gaza, so I think this may not be happening soon." The Orchestra had cancelled two concerts in Egypt and Qatar in January 2009 due to the Israeli onslaught on Gaza.

There was controversy after the January 2010 Doha concert over  a claim that the Orchestra represents "normalization" with Israel. Mariam Said wrote an article posted on Electronic Intifada on 17 March 2010 in which she passionately defended Divan against this claim. Her article came after the Palestinian Campaign For the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s (PACBI) called on the Qatari government to boycott Barenboim and the orchestra. Mariam Said argued that the Orchestra met none of the criteria for a Boycott. PACBI stuck to its initial position in a response on Electronic Intifada a few days later. The Orchestra returned to Doha in May 2011 for the Music and Dialogue Festival. Separately from his role with WEDO, Barenboim had conducted his first-ever concert in Gaza, a "peace concert" earlier that month with an orchestra of European musicians known as "the Orchestra for Gaza". 

Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra were to have returned to Qatar to perform during the five-day Katara Cultural Village five-day second Music and Dialogue Festival from 30 April to 3 May, but on 25 April Katar suddenly cancelled the Festival, "against the backdrop of the  current political developments across the Arab region." The Divan Orchestra was to have peformed there on 3 May , and on 4 May in a concert given jointly with the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra. On 30 April Barenboim was to have given a Schubert piano recital  at Katara Opera House., and there was to have been a recital of Schubert and Schumann lieder on 1 May, performed by  Barenboim and the German singer René Pape. There was also to have been the screening of a film about Edward said, The Last Interview, followed by a discussion with his widow Mariam Said.

The pride of place given to the Divan at this year's Proms, including its peformance of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the night of the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, may arouse some controversy. This is especially so given the furore at last year's Proms when four members of the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) - "since known as the "LPO 4" were suspended for six months without pay for being among the 24 people, almost all of them musicians, who signed a letter to the Independent newspaper calling on the Proms to cancel a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. Although the concert went ahead it was disrupted by protesters inside the Royal Albert Hall - none of them one of the four LPO members who signed the Independent letter - and the BBC took its broadcasting of the concert off the air. In mid-January it was reported that one of the four suspended LPO musicians, Sarah Streatfeild, was taking her case to an employment tribunal
Susannah Tarbush

Update: a commenter on this post has kindly drawn my attention to this useful 23 April article on the "LPO 4" by Chris Somes-Charlton published on Mondoweiss Who really wields the baton at the London Philharmonic Orchestra?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Regarding the four suspended London Philharmonic musicians, there is an interesting update here. http://mondoweiss.net/2012/04/who-really-wields-the-baton-at-the-london-philharmonic-orchestra.html
It seems, among other things, that the management withheld the fact that one of the four was not even guilty of the claimed offense (using the "LPO" affiliation), yet she was also suspended, while at the same time gagging her so that she could not reveal this.