‘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.