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Behind closed doors with the maestro

As a Proms presenter, Clemency Burton-Hill had unique access to Daniel Barenboim last week: she reports on his private remarks about music and his rage for excellence

20 August 2008

12:00 AM

20 August 2008

12:00 AM

‘It has to do with the condition of being human,’ Daniel Barenboim smiles, looking remarkably relaxed for someone who’s just battled through rush-hour traffic from Stansted. The conductor, along with his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, is in London on the latest stop of a European tour, but instead of resting before the next day’s epic Proms programme of Haydn, Schoenberg and Brahms, the 65-year-old maestro is now in a hotel near the Royal Albert Hall, deep in animated discussion about one of his favourite topics: the power of music and, yes, the human condition.

Not that we should be surprised: Barenboim’s energy is as legendary as his intellectual curiosity. As one of the world’s great conductors, pianists and recording artists, his output remains formidable, and he has recently published a new book: Everything Is Connected. A collection of beautifully written essays, its central idea is that although music — as merely ‘sonorous air’ — is powerless in and of itself, it can ‘teach us to think in a way that is a school for life’. In music, so the argument goes, you cannot express yourself without listening to others and respecting their ‘voice’. Legato denotes boundaries. Tempo, the speed of a process. Dynamics, the volume at which your voice may or may not overpower another. The symphony orchestra, Barenboim deduces, is therefore an alternative ‘template for democracy’; and his particular orchestra — comprised as it is of 120 young Israelis, Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Iranians — perhaps the unlikely archetype.

Described as both a ‘realisation of the impossible’ and as a ‘metaphor for the possible’, the West-Eastern Divan was originally conceived by the Israeli Barenboim and the late Palestinian academic Edward Said as a one-off workshop in 1999. So much has been written about the political significance of the ensemble since that it is easy to forget what a force they have become as musicians. But Barenboim would never stand for less. At rehearsals on Prom day itself, where he sports a casual stripey T-shirt and does not bother with orchestral scores, so ingrained is this music on his soul, he is witty and approachable, but merciless. At one point during the Schoenberg Variations he turns furiously to the second violins and cries, ‘Desks 3 and 4, I can’t wait for you! You’re holding everybody up!’ Afterwards, one of those hapless fiddlers — a Syrian — confides in me, ‘You know, he expects from us the sound of the Berlin Philharmonic.’ She then adds with woeful understatement: ‘It’s very hard.’

I’ll say. Many of these kids come from places where even the concept of music lessons is a luxury; some have been learning instruments for just a few years. It is testament to Barenboim’s absolute faith in their talent that he’s chucking Schoenberg, one of the repertoire’s trickiest composers, their way. ‘It’s true, he treats us like we are the Berlin Phil,’ admits Israeli violinist Guy Braunstein, who should know: he has also played under Barenboim’s baton with the Germans. ‘And does the orchestra mind?’ I ask, at which Braunstein laughs. ‘Of course not. We love it.’

Backstage, the West-Eastern Divan are like any other youth orchestra: rehearsal over, they’re busy sending texts, laughing, making lunch plans. They’re noisy, chattering in a multitude of languages, but interestingly — and contrary to criticisms of the project, which claim cultural apartheid persists within its ranks — there seem to be no obvious demarcations. Israelis hang out with Iranians, with Lebanese, with Palestinians. And there is a touching poignancy to all this banter: once the friends return to their home territories, political realities will, of course, prevent them from seeing each other for another year.

When I say friends, I mean friends. One of the great curiosities about this group is how hard it is to tell its Arab and Israeli members apart, and how much commonality of experience prevails. Tales are swapped of checkpoints and roadblocks, of persecution and circumscription, of inconceivable tragedy and duress. Whichever war-afflicted Middle East country they happen to be from, these youngsters have probably experienced horrors their Western counterparts could never dream of. ‘Suffering is the monopoly of no one’, Said once observed: of course there are political and religious backgrounds in conflict here, but the moment the musicians are on stage, ‘the personal stories drop away, become irrelevant….’

For Barenboim, such ‘metaphorical polyphony’ is precisely what’s missing in the political process. ‘When playing music it is possible to achieve a unique sense of peace,’ he insists. And beyond the temporary harmony of a Brahms symphony, say, is hope for something more enduring. Not physical peace in the Middle East, of course: nobody involved with the orchestra is naive enough to think that ‘sonorous air’ can stop tanks, that an ultimate solution will be anything other than political. But knowledge. Understanding. ‘There is complete and total ignorance on both sides,’ states Barenboim with typical candour. So this is not an ‘orchestra for peace’, as it is often billed, but an ‘orchestra against ignorance’, because ‘ignorance’, as Said declared, ‘is not a strategy for sustainable survival’.

Later, charging off stage to thunderous applause, Barenboim’s eyes are twinkling; his face is aglow. ‘We are a family,’ he reminds me. His son, Michael, currently leads the orchestra, but I wonder if he perhaps thinks of them all as his children? ‘In a way, yes…’ he agrees. ‘I have learned a tremendous amount from them. When you hear what they have to say, the freshness of their minds, how they think, being every day faced with the situations they are faced with…. They have a fantastic generosity of music-making. So I learned a lot. It is a project that has literally changed the life of everyone who has come into contact with it, including my own.’

And including everyone lucky enough to see them live. At the end of the concert, the roars are deafening; the cheers go on and on, the stamps of 1,500 Prommers and 5,000 seated ticket-holders demanding the inevitable encore — which Barenboim duly provides, preceded by a few words. ‘In the past, I’ve been made to [talk] about what is wrong within the Middle East,’ he jokes. ‘I’m not going to do that tonight because you’ve just heard what is right in the Middle East.’ More cheers. The orchestra play Wagner as a coda because, as Barenboim explains, ‘I always like to put in programmes where there is a major work by Schoenberg, one by Brahms and one by Wagner, because I’m fascinated how he managed to make a synthesis of two people who couldn’t stand each other….’

Before his death, Edward Said called Daniel Barenboim’s activity with the West-Eastern Divan ‘a gesture of the highest form of human solidarity’. In a region where human solidarity is in tragically short supply, whatever their limitations, such gestures count for much.

Everything Is Connected: The Power of Music by Daniel Barenboim is published by Weidenfeld & Nicholson at £16.99. For information about the orchestra visit

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