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  Nobel Laureates Plus



Argentine-born Daniel Barenboim, one of the world's most renowned conductors, has led the Berlin Harmonic, the Berlin State Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, where he is currently in his last season as music director. Along with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, Barenboim, a naturalized Israeli citizen, created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young Jewish and Arab musicians. He was interviewed by SÚrgio Martins, of Veja, for Nobel Laureates Plus.

By Daniel Barenboim

Nobel Laureates Plus: You are conducting the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is one of the most celebrated initiatives in the world of classical music. What made you create the orchestra?

Daniel Barenboim: The West-Eastern Divan is, above all, an experience of social integration. This is what my partner, Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, and I had in mind when we started this project. We wanted to show to both sides of a bloody conflict that it is possible to create environments in which Arabs and Jews live and work together. This message is transmitted each time the orchestra rehearses or performs. We proved this two weeks ago when we performed in Ramallah, in the West Bank, one of the places where the conflict between Jews and Palestinians surfaces the most.

NLP: Musically speaking, are you satisfied with the results of the group?

Barenboim: Our young musicians come from various countries for working seasons that last an average of two months. Despite the short period, we were able to reveal talented artists. I mention the case of Tamar, a Lebanese flautist. She had barely left the conservatory when she got here. Today, she plays a very important role in our performances of Mahler’s “First Symphony.” Some musicians go from here directly to the most important symphonic groups of the world. Others return home with a much better level of performance. Said died in 2003. I would like to be able to meet him and say: “See, my friend, how our dream turned into this beautiful orchestra.”   

NLP: What are the challenges faced in the orchestra’s daily life?

Barenboim: In the beginning, there were some difficulties. The tensions between Israelis and Palestinians had worsened in 1999, when we inaugurated the project, and the atmosphere was heavy. There were prejudices to overcome. Some Jewish musicians showed discredit for the idea of Arab instrumentalists. But the barriers fell during the rehearsals.

When an orchestra is in action, nobody can differentiate ethnicities. Everyone is equal in front of Beethoven. From then on, personal bonds were created. The musicians realized that they had tastes and habits in common. The orchestra has an Israeli oboist named Meirav Kadichevski. Her best friend is a Palestinian violinist. Another oboist, Mohamed Saleh, came from Egypt and is a Muslim. He lives in Berlin and shares his apartment with two Jewish instrumentalists. The new members of the orchestra let themselves be involved by this atmosphere and eventually make friends.

The greatest challenges, nowadays, come from outside. Syrian and Egyptian musicians have many times defied the government of their nations to perform with us. Jewish musicians also know that they might suffer retaliations. They all show a dose of heroism to do what they believe.

NLP: Along with the activities in the orchestra, you also maintain a school of music in Ramallah. What is the importance of this school?

Barenboim: It is believed that music is always within the reach of everyone, but there are certain places in the world that lack information and space where people can enjoy music. Ramallah is one of these places. I visited it for the first time in 1995, taken there by Edward Said, and I felt the despair and the anger of many young Palestinians.

With the school of music, I wanted to give the inhabitants of Ramallah the opportunity to study and enrich their cultural heritage. But I also had something else in mind. In Europe or in the United States, one hour playing the violin is only one hour of study. In Palestine, it also means an hour away from violence and fundamentalism.

NLP: The government of Israel promoted the withdrawal from the Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip. What is the extent of this gesture?

Barenboim: The devolution of these lands to the Palestinians is a historical happening and a very important initiative, but we must be careful. Israel has to move forward and dismantle other settlements in the West Bank. After this, it is necessary to acknowledge that there is no other way for peace than sharing the home. Jews as well as Palestinians are not able to accept that both people have a special relationship with that piece of land, a relationship based in history, philosophy and religion. This deliberate blindness has already cost too much; it is necessary to end it. But I am optimistic. I would say that we went through a period of transformation that reminds me of a work by Schubert: It has complicated passages, sometimes you do not know where the melody is going, but in the end everything gets solved.

NLP: After the attacks in London, in July, the British government announced that it is going to get tougher in its immigration laws. You come from a family of immigrants. What do you think of this kind of measure?

Barenboim: The immigrant has to understand that the country that receives him has rules that must be obeyed. If I invited someone to live in my house and said that lunch will always be served at 2 in the afternoon, I would never accept this individual to assail my refrigerator at any time. The counterpart of this is the effort of each country to integrate the arriving people. I mention as a good example the immigration that took place in Argentina in the 19th century. There came Jews, Russians, Syrians, and the government welcomed them. They all went to the same schools and had similar opportunities to progress.

Europe, on the other hand, has been tragically failing in this task of receiving people from outside. The authors of the attack in London did not come from Afghanistan to commit that monstrous act. They were British Muslims who felt they were being treated like second-class citizens. I am not justifying their act, but any measure against terrorism will have to take into account this integration factor.

NLP: The Holocaust was the central fact in the history of Jews in the 20th century. As a son of Russian Jews, how did it affect you?

Barenboim: My family immigrated to Argentina long before World War II. I was born in 1942. Thus, everything I know about Nazism and the Holocaust I learned afterwards. I remember seeing, when I was still a child, inhabitants from the city of Bariloche doing the Nazi salutation. The country sheltered many German military officials after Hitler's defeat. We used to think that there never was anything more terrible than Nazism. To be honest, I tend to believe that the main difference lies in the sense of organization of the Germans. They created an extremely efficient killing machine. But the human being’s capacity of being cruel is infinite.

NLP: You met two conductors associated with Nazism: Wilhelm Furtwängler and Herbert von Karajan. Did you talk to them about this?

Barenboim: I met Furtwängler when I was 11 years old. I did not have the courage and even less the understanding to talk to him about this issue. But I believe he never really identified himself with that horror. With Karajan, it was different. I summoned him and he told me: “I had artistic ambitions, I wanted to work in Germany, and for this I had to associate myself to the Nazi Party. That is what I did.”

NLP: In 2001, you caused a major controversy when you conducted works by composer Richard Wagner in Israel. Why did you make this decision?

Barenboim: We have to be very careful when tackling the Wagner “taboo.” Wagner was born in Germany in 1813 and died in 1883. He was a great artist and an awful human being. Nowadays, he would go to jail for his anti-Semitic writings. The Nazis turned him into a cultural icon and used his music as a symbol. In the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra we have a girl whose family was decimated in concentration camps at the sound of Wagner’s works. In other words, there is a real problem, an awful relationship between the composer's music and the death of millions of Jews.

But I do not believe in censorship. Does Richard Wagner bring terrible memories to you? It is OK, stay home and do not listen. But why should someone who lives in Tel-Aviv and who has nothing to do with the Holocaust be forbidden to listen to these compositions? There is a lot of hypocrisy in relation to the Wagner taboo. We cannot perform his works in Israel, but you can buy a Wagner CD in any record store in Tel-Aviv. Cell phones play the “Ride of the Valkyries” and nobody complains. And a lot of people drive Mercedes, which was one of Adolf Hitler’s favorite cars.

NLP: You also conducted the prelude of “Tristan and Isolde,” by Wagner, in some concerts of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. How do Israeli musicians feel when performing this work?

Barenboim: Some of the Jewish instrumentalists of the orchestra asked me to include Wagner in the program. I said that they should hold a vote among the Israelis to see if all of them agreed. The majority voted for the inclusion of “Tristan and Isolde.” The others may leave the stage if they do not feel comfortable. 

NLP: You have conducted some of the main orchestras in the world. Is there a secret to dealing with temperamental musicians?

Barenboim: The role of the conductor has changed a lot. In former days, the orchestras needed a conductor to teach them how to perform complicated pieces. Today, musicians know how to perform anything and need someone to give them another reading of the works they are used to performing. The secret is that I know how to do this very well. 

NLP: You are leaving the office of music director of the Chicago Symphony. Do you intend to seek this office in another orchestra?

Barenboim: I conducted the Chicago Symphony, why would I worry about looking for another orchestra? In which one would I find musicians as good as the ones who performed under my direction? Actually, I intend to dedicate myself more to the soloist career. I am also going to teach music at Harvard, in the United States, and do special programs for the BBC. In addition to the West-Eastern Divan, of course, which demands a lot of work. 

NLP: One of your sons does hip-hop. Does this please you?

Barenboim: David takes his work seriously, and this is enough for me, although the kind of music he makes does not attract me much. Besides, I have another son who works with me. He is the first violin in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.