Israeli, Palestinian and other Middle Eastern musicians brought a message of peace this week to an America torn by caustic political discourse.
For nearly 20 years, youths from sworn enemy countries have performed classical music together at the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the brainchild of conductor Daniel Barenboim and late Palestinian American scholar Edward Said.
“We are looking for something almost impossible, but still we try,” said Kian Soltani, 26, a rising Austrian Iranian cellist who gave a fiery performance Wednesday at Washington’s John F Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
The orchestra opened its program with Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem “Don Quixote,” inspired by the early 17th century novel about the romantic knight-errant who combats imaginary tyrants.
In many ways, the piece is a metaphor for the orchestra itself.
“If somebody would tell us that peace in the Middle East was impossible, we wouldn’t stop fighting. We would still continue like this because we believe it’s possible,” Soltani, who played the title role, told AFP.
“It’s the same for Don Quixote. He thinks he’s a knight, he thinks his dream is possible. Everyone is telling him it’s not, but he doesn’t care.”
Quixotic as it may be, the project is making its first coast-to-coast American tour just as the United States reels from a series of deadly hate crimes.
Politics and war have thwarted a goal to perform in all the members’ home countries. There was a concert in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in 2005, and none in Israel.
“It’s a pity,” violist Miriam Manasherov, 37, told AFP.
“The day that will come that we can all play in Israel or in the other Arab countries that I can’t go to, that will be a huge success.”
She plays the rotund Sancho Panza, who supports his master gone mad as he pursues his ideals on love, justice and peace in an ugly world.
The pair also performed with their sections for Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, which evolves from dark to light in four movements linked by a recurring “Fate” theme.
In “Don Quixote,” the hero ultimately gives up on his dream, returns home and dies among his loved ones. The orchestra is hoping to march toward a different future.
– Changing attitudes –
While he acknowledges that the orchestra — which borrows its name from Goethe’s German lyrical poems inspired by Persian poet Hafez — has not had much impact on the ground in the Middle East, Barenboim says the project has left a “terrific” stamp musically.
“It has changed the attitude of every person who has been through it. That’s about 1,000 people,” said Argentine-born Barenboim, who also claims Israeli, Palestinian and Spanish citizenship.
“Nobody who comes into this with whatever preconceptions he has, goes away thinking the same way.”
The orchestra’s first coast-to-coast US tour is a homecoming of sorts for Barenboim, 75, who stepped down as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s director in 2006 after more than four decades that also saw him serve as conductor and pianist there.
The Midwestern city was the tour’s first stop, on Monday, ahead of performances in Washington, New York’s Carnegie Hall, Berkeley, California and Los Angeles.
During their last US visit, in 2013, the orchestra performed the Beethoven symphony cycle at Carnegie Hall, as well as in Boston and Providence, Rhode Island.
“It is a conflict between two people who are deeply convinced they have a right to the same little piece of land, preferably without the other,” Barenboim said about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“You cannot solve this militarily, unless you kill everybody, and you cannot solve it politically.
“You can only solve it by coming to the point where both sides understand that their destinies are inextricably linked and therefore accept the existence of the other.”
Deceptively simple as it may seem, that is the thrust behind the orchestra and the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which trains gifted musicians mainly from the Middle East and North Africa for a professional career.
To drive the point home, the concert’s closing encore was the overture of Richard Wagner’s “The Mastersingers of Nuremberg,” a work widely used in Nazi propaganda and subverted once more by the orchestra’s unique make-up, to raucous applause and a standing ovation.