The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra brings multicultural power to Beethoven

Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and Palestinian scholar Edward Said joined forces in 1999 to conduct a workshop for young musicians from across the Middle East—Egypt, Syria, Israel, Palestine. The aim of the workshop, held in Weimar, Germany, was to promote intercultural dialogue between people whose countries were at war, as well as cooperation toward the common goal of studying and performing symphonic music. Barenboim and Said expected 25 applications; they received two hundred. What was to have been a onetime effort became The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a touring ensemble with 120 members and a permanent home in Sevilla, Spain.

Ramallah_concertThe orchestra opened its 2013 season on January 30 at Carnegie Hall with a program entitled “Beethoven for All: The Complete Symphonies.” According to Brown University professor of history and music Michael Steinberg, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra plays a uniquely powerful Beethoven, attributable in part to Heinrich Schenker’s influence on Barenboim. Schenker developed a method of analysis that looks at music not as a series of notes but as large-scale shapes and patterns.

When Barenboim conducts, you see these shapes in his body; sometimes he is a soaring hawk, sometimes a pendulum, sometimes an elegant courtier inviting a lady to dance. The orchestra recapitulated these shapes, endowing symphonies nos. 1 and 5 with a deep rolling momentum. Symphony no. 8, composed when Beethoven was already going deaf, was especially well played, the turbulence of its final movement making the heart pound with suspense.

The orchestra’s website opens with the tagline “Great music is the result of deep listening.” It continues, “Every player listening intently to the voice of the composer and to each other. Harmony in personal or international relations can also only exist by listening.”

Sadly, this unarguable sentiment draws political criticism ranging from silly to irrelevant: Why Beethoven—why not Middle Eastern composers? How can music address the problems in the Middle East? Like the fight against gun violence in the U.S., the fight for peace in the Middle East seems fruitless. But in Carnegie Hall on January 30, the audience began applauding when the first young musician ambled onstage, kept clapping as the orchestra assembled as a whole, and nearly bowled Mr. Barenboim over with a roar of approval when he assumed the podium.

The fight for peace might seem impossible to win, but you’ve got to start somewhere—and Beethoven ain’t a bad place to start.