Clemency Burtonhill

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

‘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.

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