Can music bridge Middle East discord?

Can an orchestra bring peace to the Middle East? It is, Daniel Barenboim insists, the wrong question; it was never the plan to use music as a tool for social change. Yet his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, founded 18 years ago with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said in order to bring together young musicians from Israel, Palestine, the Middle East and north Africa, is surely the world’s most controversial symphony orchestra. Fortunately, Barenboim is both pragmatic and thick-skinned.

Despite the controversy, the idea was convincing enough for the German government to commit more than €20m to the creation of a Berlin-based academy with an attached chamber music hall. Private donors pitched in with another €17m. When Barenboim wants something, money is seldom an obstacle.

“We are not achieving any social change,” Barenboim states baldly during an interview in the new academy. “The situation in Palestine is much worse now than it was when we started in 1999. If I was doing it for change, then I should be very disappointed. It’s flattering when the orchestra is described as an orchestra for peace, but it isn’t. An orchestra cannot do that. An orchestra is simply a statement of how people can make music and collaborate.”

The new Barenboim-Said Academy extends the idea of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra into a tertiary institution where young musicians are trained in both performance and humanities. Housed in the former set storage facility of Berlin’s Staatsoper Unter den Linden, where Barenboim is general music director, the academy opened in December. Architect Frank Gehry donated his services to design its chamber music hall, which is named after the late composer/conductor Pierre Boulez and opens next weekend.

“For me there is a human and humanitarian aspect to music that is very important,” says Barenboim. “The idea is that music students should also get lessons in philosophy. I believe it is extremely necessary for musicians to learn to think in and with music.”

Barenboim’s initiative has come under fire from both ends of the political spectrum. Some pro-Palestinian observers criticise the orchestra as “normalisation”, a term referring to any collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis that does not have as its sole aim the end of the Israeli occupation; other critics see it as an act of betrayal towards Israel. Still others do not dare to voice their opinions in public, out of fear of both the fallout from displeasing Barenboim, an immensely powerful figure in the international music industry, and of being denounced on websites that name and shame academics who have criticised Israel.

“Therefore I must be doing something right,” says Barenboim. “I would be very worried if I would be criticised by only one side. But it’s obvious. We are in exile. This project should be in the region, in Tel Aviv, in Damascus, in Ramallah, in Cairo.

Syrian clarinettist and composer Kinan Azmeh, who has played in and collaborated with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra since 2001, will be among those performing in next weekend’s opening concerts. “The new hall will bring attention for a lot of works that have been under-represented for a long time,” Azmeh says. “It’s going to change how the world looks at music. Musicians from the Arab world will present contemporary music; but that’s just one part of many dots that need to be connected. It’s not enough that it stays only here. It needs to be contagious. This should be the standard, and not the exception.”

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