Reflections on the West-Eastern Divan Tour: summer 2008

Every year, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra matures and develops in every possible way. This year, the orchestra performed two very challenging programs: the first act of die Walküre in concert version, and the Schönberg’s Variations for Orchestra Op. 31 with Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. This second program was completed alternately by Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for violin, cello, oboe, and bassoon, and Mozart’s Concerto for Three Pianos. It was a pleasure for me to see how the Palestinian pianist Karim Said progressed; he has been coming to the Divan workshop since he was ten years old, and this year he was one of the soloists in the Mozart concerto together with the young Israeli pianist Yael Kareth and myself. We also had four excellent soloists for the Haydn Concertante. I took special pleasure in Spanish oboist Ramon Ortega’s development, as he has been part of our orchestra since he was fourteen years old. His teacher Gregor Witt, principal oboist of the Staatskapelle Berlin, spared himself no effort in developing the young boy’s talent; Ramon is now the principal oboist of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra. The other Haydn soloists, Egyptian cellist Hassan Moataz and Israeli bassoonist Mor Biron, are also long-time members of the Divan, and Guy Braunstein, concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, has been a major addition to the quality of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and a great enhancement to its prestige.

I was not only very happy with the excellence of the playing in both programs, I was also very pleased to observe the musicians’ maturity in speaking to each other and listening to their colleagues’ points of view, which were sometimes uncomfortable for them to hear. Their mutual respect and sensitivity has grown enormously over the years. This convinces me that Edward Said and I acted on a correct assumption when we founded the orchestra in 1999: namely, that contact with one another through music would eventually lead to dialogue, which in turn would begin to foster understanding between our two peoples.

Every summer, we play a concert which is televised by the French/German Arte in many countries. This was the case with the concert in Ramallah 2005 and the concert from Granada in 2006. This summer, we had planned to play a concert in the Roman Amphitheatre in Amman, Jordan, which unfortunately had to be postponed because of the local security situation. Instead, we accepted an invitation to play at the Ravello Festival on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.

Ravello, a beautiful small town perched on a cliff that drops directly into the Mediterranean, inspired Wagner to rewrite parts of the second act of Parsifal, which he was composing when he visited Ravello for a single morning. He was so awe-struck by the garden on a precipice overlooking the ocean that he decided this would be Klingsor’s garden. This garden now separates the festival’s outdoor stage from the audience. We performed an all-Wagner program there: the Overture to die Meistersinger, the Prélude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde (with Waltraud Meier), and the first act of die Walküre with singers Waltraud Meier, Simon O’Neill, and John Tomlinson. The concert was broadcast live on Arte.

When we performed in the new Oslo De Norske Opera House in August, I felt it was appropriate to say a few words to the audience in the city whose famous Accords had awakened so much hope and later created such disillusionment among Middle Easterners. I spoke of the need for Israelis and Palestinians to find the mental space that is essential for any realistic dialogue in the Middle East, and of the inability to solve this conflict through military action or, for that matter, solely through politics. It is after all not a political conflict in the ordinary sense of the term, meaning a conflict between two nations over natural resources or borders; it is a human conflict between two peoples who are deeply convinced that they have the right to live on the same little piece of earth.

I have spoken in the past about the need to institute more non-political programs such as the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. In Oslo I also spoke about the problems our musicians face when they go home after the euphoria of a six-week tour without checkpoints, terrorist attacks, or travel restrictions. If an Israeli befriends a Syrian in the orchestra, they cannot visit each other during the year. Even email communication is limited. The same problem applies to Israeli-Lebanese friendships. For six weeks every summer, these young musicians can live together as if they were all citizens of one nation, what I like to call the Independent Sovereign Republic of the West-Eastern Divan. However, when the summer is over, the borders reappear.

This orchestra will only achieve its full potential when it is able to perform in every single one of the countries represented by its members. At present, these countries are Spain, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iran, Jordan, Egypt, and Palestine.

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