It happened again. I didn’t think it possible, but 13 years after I first heard Daniel Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, another image of perfect peace was conjured last night at the Kennedy Center. Just once during this two-and-a-half hour concert. It was at the end of the first half, after a pompous video about how this orchestra of young Israelis and Arabs shows that dialogue between opposing cultures is possible, followed by a fantastic performance of a lousy piece of music: Don Quixote by Richard Strauss. But then, the encore. Don Quixote has a solo cellist, and with accompaniment from the entire string section, the soloist played his famous solo from The Carnival of the Animals: The Swan.
Thirteen years ago was my first experience of the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, on a small, tinny laptop, where I could indulge my unceasing and extremely eccentric urge for a person my age to surround their days with classical music. It was a live performance relay from the BBC, a concert at Royal Albert Hall in London, where the West Eastern Divan Orchestra played Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for Winds. And for eight minutes in the slow movement, conflicts of millennia were resolved.
This is the concept of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra: that by Arab and Jewish musicians listening to the ‘narrative of the other,’ cultures who hate each other can see an example of how people innately predisposed to hate each other can come together to produce something beautiful, and therefore can provide an example for how it might be done in more practical terms.
This is exactly as absurd as it sounds. If everybody who gets together to find common ground emerges with greater understanding of each other, then why is there any conflict in the world at all? You’d think it had never been tried before. Some intimate relationships are destined to end very badly if the couple doesn’t break up soon enough. There is absolutely nothing which the West-East Divan Orchestra can do to cause peace except to make a futile, sentimental gesture toward the peace which the Middle East clearly eludes. If it accomplishes so little for peace, then is there any point to such an organization but the self-aggrandizement of its leader? Maybe an orchestra like this makes peace even further away rather than closer because it conjures false illusions about what is possible from collaboration – not to mention, it might endanger the musicians.
But listen to the results. The identity of these performers colors how we hear the music. When these particular performers play beautiful music, it does not merely sound like beautiful music, it sounds like the beauty that has eluded Middle Easterners since the dawn of recorded history. Anyone who doubts that music cannot express any definite meaning ought to hear this orchestra play Mozart or Beethoven or Wagner. When the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics play those composers, it means something completely different – these orchestras are custodians of a sacred tradition, and like many sacred traditions, theirs has a troubling history of letting all manner of dictators exploit their holiness for the ugliest of crimes. But when an orchestra is comprised of the descendants of victims fleeing some of the most brutal regimes on earth, it’s an affirmation that this music has meaning not just to a nationalist brotherhood that none else can properly appreciate, but to all people, including and especially those whose ancestors were murdered with Wagner and Beethoven serving as background noise.
This is the kind of grandiose, over-the-top, metaphysical statement that is a specialty of Daniel Barenboim. Leonard Bernstein tried to touch your heart, but when Barenboim performs, but Daniel Barenboim tries to bypasses the heart and head straight for the soul. People left a Lenny concert weeping, feeling as though their heart was communicated to. People leave a Danny concert feeling cleansed, as though they’ve been through a very deep spiritual experience. Even last night’s extraordinary performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, 45 minutes from the ultimate composer of passion, sounded like a mystical rite. Rather than burn us out with passion, the whole orchestra sounded perfectly blended like a giant organ.
Indeed, there’s something about Barenboim’s musicmaking that is clearly a little bit… goyish? In person, Barenboim is a voluble personality – a charismatic extravert who cracks fantastic jokes, a prodigious worker whose intensity is matched by a furious temper – in other words, typically Jewish… And yet, the humor all too present in his life all too rarely shows up in his musicmaking.
For those classical music lovers in the know, there is something distinctly old-fashioned about Barenboim. His musicmaking is almost pompous, with the kind of slow tempos, luminously full sounds, constant tempo changes and swelling phrases that sound like a musician from mid-century Germany. And there is something about his fascination with all things German that, for a musician from Israel, is a mite creepy.
Don’t think Israelis haven’t noticed, and they hate him like anything because he constantly goes out of his way to make it seem as though he hates them: attempts to sneak Wagner into his concert programs in Israel, living in Berlin, becoming best friends with Edward Said (until he died, the world’s most famous Palestinian intellectual), constant and blistering criticism in the press of Israel’s policies toward its neighbors. To many Israelis, it feels as though Barenboim will do anything to break bread with anybody who has problems with us, exploit the precarious position of Israelis for his own self-aggrandizement, and distance himself from being Jewish.
The truth is always more complicated. What do you do when, as Barenboim was, it’s confirmed from early childhood that you’re a prodigy and that things impossible for others are possible for you? Do you spend your life trying to not ruffle the feathers of people who will always hate you for how easily things come to you, or do you use your gift to try as best you can to build bridges no one else is extraordinary enough to build, in the hope that the ways which you’re different can be used to improve the lives of people you love?
Geniuses are by definition more extraordinary than the rest of us, and if ordinary people can’t find a way to connect with hostile strangers who threaten us, maybe extraordinary Jews who have a complicated relationship to Zionism like Barenboim, like Martin Buber and Albert Einstein, like Hannah Arendt and Primo Levi and Sigmund Freud, like even, God help us, Noam Chomsky and Yehudi Menuhin, are our best chance to convince our enemies that Jews are not all bad.
And even if they’ll never be convinced, at least we’ll have some beautiful music.