Creating a new symphony orchestra is an involved process. There’s more to it than just finding a bunch of musicians and some sheet music. Doing it with young artists adds complications. Consciously imposing a socio-political agenda would seem to make it nearly impossible.
Yet Daniel Barenboim and the late Edward Said did just that after a series of highly successful workshops in Weimar, Germany, in 1999, the jumping-off point for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Now in its 14th year, the group will be making a rare New York appearance with a series of concerts Jan. 29-Feb. 3, including a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies.
The orchestra is composed of young musicians from Israel, Palestine and the surrounding Arab nations. When they sit down to play, Jews, Arabs and Christians are side-by-side, frequently sharing a music stand and always sharing the experiences that come with creating music and traveling the globe.
“From the moment I arrived, I came with a lot of curiosity,” Meirav Kadichevski said last week, speaking by telephone from her home in Tel Aviv. The Israeli oboist has been playing in the Divan Orchestra for a decade, since joining the aggregation when she was 24. “I knew I was going to be playing with people I wouldn’t even have been able to meet otherwise. Under those circumstances, many people would be afraid. I can understand them, because I used to be afraid as well.”
“It’s a challenging experience to be in the orchestra,” violinist Tyme Khleifi said in a telephone interview from Boston, where she works at the Longy School of Music of Bard College. A Palestinian Christian, Khleifi has played the violin since she was 7 and joined the orchestra the year after Kadichevski. “You take traditional enemies and put them together in a forum where they do not view each other as enemies. [What results is] a process of re-evaluating your thoughts, your beliefs and your vision of the future.”
The key to success for a new orchestra undoubtedly lies with the musical director and conductor at its helm. Barenboim and Said had thought long and hard about forming the Divan, and their concept of music as a potential bridge between peoples was hardly a new one. When Said died in September 2003, the full burden of keeping the project alive fell on Barenboim and, for the past decade, he has built the group into a formidable musical entity.
The two young musicians speak of him with awe.
“To begin with, working with maestro Barenboim is one of the most satisfying and extraordinary experiences a musician can have,” Khleifi said enthusiastically. “He’s a genius, such an amazing musician, educator and teacher. To be able to experience that and the knowledge he has, and to understand his ideas on art and culture and the human condition, it’s amazing. It’s the reason we all keep coming back and being there.”
Kadichevski concurs with similar ardor.
“He really knows a whole lot about music,” she said. “He digs deep into the music, and we’re lucky he really loves to teach and explain and to work with people who are open to learn from him and give an effort. We get a lot out of him, maybe even more than his … orchestras [composed of older musicians], people who are more formed in their ideas. He raised us from childhood age. He has brought us to play on a very high level.”
But, as Khleifi implied, the maestro brings more to the musicians than just a vibrant interpretation of the music. In return, their responsibilities go deeper than just playing well. As Kadichevski testifies, the very nature of the Divan gives the music-making experience another dimension.
“It has been an amazing experience to be able to communicate [with the other musicians], through music and beyond. We travel together. We have a lot in common: first the music, which is a big part of our lives. But spending time with them you understand; they eat, drink and breathe just like you do. They have feelings like you, react to situations like you. Once you get to a place where people you’ve seen from afar and through the media — this generalized group cast as an enemy — once you talk to them, you experience them as human beings. Playing in this orchestra completely changed my way of seeing them.”
Inevitably, the members of the orchestra take that experience along with them whether they are on tour or at home.
That new consciousness may create its own set of problems.
“I’m lucky because my family is supportive,” Khleifi said. “They are huge admirers of Said and Barenboim and the project and the music. But the general atmosphere in Palestine is not supportive of such projects. They describe them as ‘normalizing,’ as accepting the political status quo. They are criticized. I haven’t personally met a lot of criticism from friends, but I know that some of my friends are not supporters.”
Kadichevski has had similar experiences.
“I get different reactions from different people,” she said. Some people are open to new ideas. I talk about my experience in this orchestra and playing with Arab people. Some say, ‘that’s cool.’ Others look at me like, ‘are you sure you should be doing that?’”
But neither young woman calls the larger mission of the orchestra a source of stress.
“It’s my feeling that we’re doing something very important and special beyond the music we’re making,” Kadichevski said. “There’s also a lot of pride. I feel that since this is working, we have a responsibility to show whoever comes and listens that such a thing can work. That Jews and Arabs can work together to create something beautiful.”
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, under the direction of Daniel Barenboim, will perform a series of three concerts at Carnegie Hall (57th Street and Seventh Ave.), on Jan. 31, Feb. 2-3 that will include many of Beethoven symphonies. For more information, go to www.carnegiehall.org.
On Feb. 1, at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre (116th St. and Broadway), there will be a free panel discussion, “Edward Said’s Music,” at 4 p.m., a symposium on Said’s legacy at 7 p.m., and a performance by Barenboim and members of the orchestra at 8 p.m. For information go to www.millertheatre.com.