Making Music: An Alternative Model
To mark the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s 20th-anniversary season, violinist Michael Barenboim is touring the United States with the newly formed West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, a chamber group of string players who will bring the organization’s cross-cultural vision to Stanford in March.
In 1999, while many were preoccupied with the elusive Y2K bug, the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim and the literary scholar Edward Said co-founded the West- Eastern Divan Orchestra as an alternative model for trying to come to terms with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Divan blossomed from a millennial outlook—an outlook that envisioned new hopes for global harmony and for the central place of art in furthering cross-cultural understanding.
The Divan Ensemble will perform Jawb, a new piece commissioned just for the ensemble by the young, much sought-after French composer Benjamin Attahir.
How dramatically things have changed in the mere two decades since the Divan’s founding. Amid increases in the political and social tensions that were among the original catalysts for this project, the reality of climate change looms as an ever-more-ominous backdrop— developments that only underscore the urgency of finding ways to transcend barriers of hostility and to celebrate our shared humanity.
“The members of the Divan get a chance to see the human element when they meet and talk and perform with people who in their normal environment would be considered enemies,” says Michael Barenboim, Daniel’s son and violinist and director of the organization’s latest project, the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble. “Outside rehearsals, people talk, discuss, and discover things. Everyone changes in different ways, but being part of the Divan Orchestra has changed everyone who joins it.”
To mark this 20th-anniversary season of the Divan Orchestra—in which he himself has played since 2000, when he was only 14—Michael Barenboim founded the Divan Ensemble “to offer the public an opportunity to see the members of the orchestra in a more intimate environment.”
The ensemble consists of eight string players from the Divan Orchestra. In February and March of 2020, Barenboim will lead the group on its inaugural tour, which starts its 14-concert journey in Chicago. The final stops of the tour take the musicians to California, with a program of chamber music classics as well as a brand-new commission at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall on Wednesday, March 4.
Barenboim notes that another motivation for founding the Divan Ensemble is “to represent the ideals of the whole Divan project to a wider audience.” The greater flexibility inherent in the ensemble allows the musicians to play in places where the orchestra cannot travel as feasibly.
And what are those ideals? They first took shape in conversations between Daniel Barenboim and Said, who is also remembered as a prominent figure in the field of colonial studies. (Said died in 2003.) Together, and drawing on their respective Israeli and Palestinian backgrounds, Daniel Barenboim and Said established an orchestra whose identity defied the hostile boundaries scarring the Middle East. The members are Palestinians and Israelis, along with musicians from other Arab countries, Iran, Turkey, and Spain.
The Divan Orchestra officially launched on August 16, 1999, with a concert in the symbolically chosen city of Weimar, Germany. That year, Weimar had been named a European Capital of Culture, and it is also closely associated with Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who had spent one of his most flourishing creative periods there. Daniel Barenboim and Said took the name of their project from West-Eastern Divan, a collection of Goethe’s poetry—with contributions from his lover Marianne von Willemer—published in 1819. “Divan” refers to an anthology, and the underlying theme of this one is a lyrical dialogue between East and West.
The Divan Orchestra initially had headquarters in Seville, Spain, but has since made its home at the Barenboim- Said Academy in the heart of Berlin. Along with supporting the orchestra, the academy offers bachelor’s degrees and artist diplomas in music. In recent years, some of the academy students have gone on to join the Divan Orchestra.
“[The academy is] more than a music conservatory,” explains Barenboim. “The same ideas about cultural dialogue that are at the basis of the Divan guide the music instruction as well as the other classes here, whether in philosophy, history, or literature.”
For the Divan Ensemble, Barenboim has brought together orchestra players with backgrounds from Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, and Jordan. “I wanted to highlight the core of the Divan, which originated with a focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” he says. Four of the musicians are currently students or former students of the academy, where Barenboim also teaches.
The Divan Ensemble doesn’t pretend to offer easy answers, Barenboim says. “We don’t have a political message. We are musicians first of all. The only thing we offer is an alternative model of thinking that is not based on the conflict patterns we see in the news all the time. The basis is a dialogue of understanding—involving and accepting the narrative of the other.”
Thomas May is a freelance writer, critic, educator, and translator whose work has been published internationally. He contributes to the programs of the Lucerne Festival as well as to the New York Times and Musical America.
Michael Barenboim & the West-Eastern
Wed, Mar 4
Bing Concert Hall