Saturday, February 2, 2013

Beethoven on the West Bank

You-know-who on the West Bank barrier.

The distinguished conductor Daniel Barenboim has insisted that his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, perhaps the only symphony in the world where Israelis, Arabs, and Iranians play side by side (and which made its Boston debut last week at Celebrity Series) is "not a project for peace."

Okay.  It's hard to fully agree, but Barenboim is quite eloquent on this point, and deserves to be quoted at length:

"The Divan is not a love story, and it is not a peace story. It has very flatteringly been described as a project for peace. It isn't. It's not going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well. The Divan was conceived as a project against ignorance. A project against the fact that it is absolutely essential for people to get to know the other, to understand what the other thinks and feels, without necessarily agreeing with it. I'm not trying to convert the Arab members of the Divan to the Israeli point of view, and [I'm] not trying to convince the Israelis to the Arab point of view. But I want to . . . create a platform where the two sides can disagree and not resort to knives."

It's sad to say, but clearly the knives are, indeed, still drawn regardless: none of the names of the young players of the West-Eastern Divan could be listed in the program due to security concerns.  So clearly even this dream of building a platform for communication - which Barenboim and co-founder Edward Said named for Goethe's grand cycle of poems inspired by the Persian poet Hafez - remains a threat to some people.

Sigh.  It's somehow comforting, then, that even if the Divan "isn't going to bring peace, whether you play well or not so well," its players still play very, very well.  Barenboim has in fact worked a kind of miracle with what is largely a youth orchestra (plenty of players seemed to be on the sunny side of 25, or even 20 - the membership from the Middle East is supplemented by players from Spain, btw, where the orchestra is based).  Indeed, the conductor has drawn from these dedicated young musicians a startlingly mature, muscular sound that often achieved an impressive sense of majesty.

Barenboim in action with the West-Eastern Divan.

I would have to add, however, that what Barenboim delivered was "Beethoven with a capital B;" he kicked it old school - or at least mid-twentieth-century school - and hardly nodded to any of the fresh insights that the early music movement (or other iconoclastic interpreters) have recently brought to our understanding of the grand Ludwig van.   Thus the orchestra for the Second Symphony was large, and for the Third (the so-called "Eroica," or "Heroic"), truly titanic - practically Wagner-sized, in fact, probably twice the size of the forces at Beethoven's original disposal (and needless to say everyone was playing modern instruments). Perhaps more tellingly, Barenboim conducted both symphonies as if they were the Fifth - there should be an enormous gap, I'd argue, between the lingering Haydn-esque echoes of the Second and the stunning experiments of the Third; but here they both sounded like variants of a kind of quasi-religious musical consensus (intriguingly, sourced in German high culture) that defied what we know of their actual genesis.

Still, as I said, Barenboim is a master of this sound, the orchestra clearly worshipped him - and you could argue that "Beethoven with a capital B" is all too appropriate to the Divan's political aims (to Western ears, at least). And the musical results were often compelling, if not enlightening.  Barenboim favored a thoughtful pace that led to slow, expansive statements - even his idea of a scherzo proved pretty deliberate. Indeed, he often seemed to drop his beat entirely to focus on sculpting some sonic peak; thus one was constantly reminded of mountains emerging from mist. Still, this worked splendidly in the Larghetto movement of the Second, and the more dramatic passages of the "Eroica" - particularly the funereal second movement and the driving finale, which despite a rather strident string section (the winds and horns were less insistent) burned with a palpably grand fire.  Which the packed hall at Symphony clearly adored; and to be honest, even I felt the combination of a nostalgic take on Beethoven with a committed political idealism had proved a potent mix.

Perhaps even a heroic one.

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