A Rising Star Over a Dark Forest

Founded in 1999 by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is made up of musicians under the age of twenty-eight from—as the organization’s website puts it—“any Arab countries of the Middle East (Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria etc.), Israel or Spain.” Since Said’s death in 2003, Barenboim has led the orchestra by himself ethically and—as he always did—musically.

The cosmopolitan conductor holds four passports (from his native Argentina, as well as Israel, Palestine, and Spain) and disavows any overt political program for the orchestra, flatly rejecting the notion that it is a peace project. Rather, Barenboim claims that the group’s mission is fundamentally to be seen as a fight against ignorance, since music requires listening among participants, even if they are at odds with one another. Yet implicit in the undertaking must be the view that the orchestra provides a real model for the age-old political metaphor of the concert of nations—itself drawn from music-making. Under the fearless, if often imperious, baton of Maestro Barenboim, these young musicians offer a prelude to—and perhaps later will provide an actual accompaniment for—the harmony that might one day prevail among former enemies.

These ideals appear to be robust and battle-hardened, and have led to inspiring concerts, among them a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth in Ramallah back in 2005. The orchestra has remained intact even during a tour in December and January of 2008-9 when war broke out in Gaza and also during the atrocities there last summer. Many both inside and outside the group have claimed this durability as a triumph over divisiveness and hate, though other valid impulses must also contribute to cohesion, for example the desire of these young musicians to accumulate professional experience and to travel the world with an ensemble of international standing.

Earlier this month the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra came to Berlin in the midst of a European tour that included festival appearances in Salzburg, Lucerne and the Proms in London. The ironies of history, as they figure in the genesis of the orchestra, are stark in Berlin, especially as the orchestra’s concerts take place in the Waldbühne (forest stage), a stunning facility over which the Nazi past looms even on the loveliest of north German summer evenings.

The amphitheater was built  for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. At those games the venue hosted the boxing matches. A few years later Hitler sponsored and designed Wagner opera performances at the site. To this day the muscle-bound Nazi nudes of sculptor Adolf Wamper flank the main entrance to the Waldbühne, which is also shadowed by the clock tower that rises next to the Reich’s Sport Field, that crucial venue of Berlin’s Hitler Youth May Day celebrations. On the other side of this patch of infamy sits the Olympic Stadium where Jesse Owens won his four gold medals to the Führer’s dismay.

The Waldbühne is a crucial component of the greatest of Olympic complexes, which in its totality (or perhaps totalitarianism) is a beautiful and chilling monument to the power and danger of crowds and entertainment. To understand the sinister side of the modern Olympics you simply have to walk these grounds, simultaneously glorious and oppressive.

Other ironies from Germany’s more recent past also attend the West-Eastern Divan’s appearance in Berlin. This was a city divided by a wall for nearly thirty years, a wall that was torn down quickly and almost completely after 1989. Now between Israeli and Palestine a wall goes up that separates the homes of many of the musicians in the orchestra.

The utterly crass additions later made to architect Werner March’s original designs for the Waldbühne hardly hide the past, but instead bring it into still greater relief. The beer and sausage tents erected on the terraces; the ad-banners fixed to the sandstone walls that divide seating sections; the ugly twin-peaked white neoprene tent that keeps the performers dry when it rains: all these things merely highlight the dark and enduring majesty of March’s creation.

The biggest insult to eye and ear, however, are the banks of speakers heaped up near the stage and also hanging from poles staked out throughout the seating areas. March was not only inspired by the physical design of the well-preserved amphitheater in Epidaurus in Greece, but also by his classical model’s acoustics which conveys speech from the stage to the last row of its 13,000 seats. Indeed, in the mournful Andantino of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony heard during the West-Eastern Divan’s concert a baby on the far side of the bowl started crying, its unamplified complaints easily to be heard throughout the entire amphitheater.

If one is sitting in the higher elevations, tiny figures seem to be sawing away on stage while a tinny and unsynchronized version of their efforts emanates from a bank of nearby speakers. It’s rather like watching and listening to the concert on an iPhone: fleeting moments of excitement are glimpsed and heard through a dull and distancing fog. The bluff heroism of Beethoven’s Triple Concerto, which opened the program, comes off as cartoonish parody. Pulling the plug on the amplification would lessen the decibel level somewhat, but massively increase the immediacy and impact of the music.

The Waldbühne also hosts big-time rock concerts by the likes of the Rolling Stones, who caused a riot at the site in 1965 and returned here last year to septuagenarian rapture. Unplugging the Waldbühne for classical fare would require preventing the audience from heading for the concessions stand during the performance. That would mean less money made. In any case, Berlin audiences more interested in enjoying the evening with a bit of background music are unlikely to be capable of anachronistic obedience to the gods of silence.

But the subservience to a dubious technology is a pity, especially given violin soloist Guy Braunstein’s flawlessly swashbuckling dash through the Triple Concerto. So powerful was his reading of the part that it battled its way heroically through the mobs of speakers. For a dozen years Braunstein was concertmaster of the Berlin Philharmonic, unanimously elected to that prestigious post at the age of just twenty-nine. He retired from the orchestra three years ago to pursue a solo career, and for those in Berlin so often captivated by his playing from the first violin chair in the legendary interior acoustics of the Philharmonie concert hall, it was somewhat disconcerting seeing him from afar yet hearing him so close. Undaunted, this big, generous, brilliant musician triumphed over the obstacles of mass-concert technology.

The same could not be said for Barenboim, who granted himself the piano part in the concerto, swiveling on his bench to wave his arms now and again before his young charges. His bravura approximations at the keyboard were punished by amplification, the West-Eastern Sultan laid low by the eavesdropping microphones. Kian Soltani, the twenty-two-year-old Austrian cellist, tried to overwhelm these same barriers with outsized emotion and even more massive vibrato, but in contrast to Braunstein’s authenticity, this came off as overblown, like a furious dust devil whipping up the amphitheater sands.

For the program’s second half Barenboim rode out on one of his warhorses— Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. This is music saturated with volatile emotions and unknowable meaning. Barenboim drew from his orchestra surges of feeling whose drama was all the more powerful for the precision of the ensemble playing, evident even from the upper tiers of the Waldbühne. The symphony’s first movement pits a strident and excessive martial theme heard in the trumpets against an exotic, libidinous second theme intimated first by the winds and then taken up by the strings. This contest between seemingly irreconcilable forces—and perhaps between warring internal impulses of the composer himself—is never resolved, erupting again in the final movement. As presented by this orchestra this musical-emotional conflict resonates all the more strongly with that in the Middle East.

After five minutes of thronged applause, Sibelius’s Valse triste was offered as a first encore, accompanied somewhere beyond the forest backdrop by a distant barrage of fireworks that streaked the last glimmers of twilight with slashes of apocalyptic fire.

Then the young Israeli Lahav Shani, recent winner of the Mahler Prize at the world’s preeminent conducting competition in Bamberg, led a fast and furious romp through Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture. This rising star, praised by Barenboim as the greatest musical talent of his generation, looks forward to a future far brighter than that of the Palestinian-Israeli tragedy that spawned the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which in turn comes back every summer to a forest stage with roots in a dark past.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com