This is not political, Daniel Barenboim says, admitting that he knows few will agree when they learn about his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. How can a project that requires Israelis and Arabs to play together on the same stage not be political?
“Our project, our idea, is a humanistic idea,” says Barenboim in advance of the orchestra’s Boston debut. “There is hardly any other area in which Israelis and Palestinians are willing to work together and have a passion for the same thing.”
In this case, that passion is Beethoven, which Barenboim and the group — which features about 100 musicians, ages 15 to 36, from Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, and Turkey — will perform Sunday in a concert at Symphony Hall. They arrive at a precarious time in the Middle East, as world leaders try again to revive talks to resolve the 65-year conflict but tensions remain between Israel and Palestinian leaders.
Barenboim, 70, admits he’s frustrated with the political stalemate. He says he wishes both sides could find common ground. But the maestro, whose advocacy for Palestinian rights and push to perform Wagner on Israeli soil have made him a controversial figure, does not pick sides.
On the phone from Oman, where he’s vacationing, he says the orchestra is meant to serve as an example of how two cultures, long suspicious of each other, can make peace. This is why he and the late Edward Said, a Palestinian-American professor at Columbia University, formed the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999.
It’s also why Barenboim is frustrated that he can’t tour more freely with these musicians across the Middle East.
“We played one concert in Ramallah seven years ago and that would not be possible to repeat now,” he said. “We have never played in Israel or Syria or Egypt. [The orchestra] has had a tremendous influence on the lives of everybody who has come into direct or indirect contact with the project. But it goes against all the beliefs and opinions that are now in fashion in the whole area, on both sides.”
‘Music is the reason this orchestra still exists and why these members keep coming back and why we feel very devoted to this project.’
The orchestra hasn’t played Boston before, but that’s not for political reasons. The group usually tours through Europe and other areas in the summer and Barenboim, whose busy schedule finds him conducting orchestras around the world, said it has been a challenge to find a date here.
Gary Dunning, the president of the Celebrity Series of Boston, which will present the orchestra, said that he appreciates the mission of the group. But that’s not why they’re coming to Boston.
“My interest was primarily in Daniel Barenboim conducting Beethoven,” he said.
But for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, there is more than music. Barenboim wants to show how two sides can work together — and not by pretending they’re playing in a Beethoven bubble.
The young musicians are expected as part of the experience to hold discussions about the political landscape and their own lives growing up amid conflict. Depending on the moment, there can be tears, sometimes raised voices, but more than anything, there’s a greater understanding of the other side’s perspective, says Linor Katz, 25, an Israeli-born cellist who has been in the orchestra for seven years.
Growing up in Israel, she says, she remembers mainly fearing Arabs.
“Because I never got to meet these people,” Katz said. “Even when I heard Arabs or saw somebody from one of these countries, I was afraid. I was very ignorant in a way.”
She remembers arriving in Spain for her first workshop with the orchestra. An Israel friend brought her to meet violinist Mina Zikri, an Egyptian. He was friendly and funny. He could also play beautifully. Today, Katz doesn’t think as much about where her colleagues are from as how they play.
She loves hearing Israeli flutist Guy Eshed as he performs during the second movement of Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony. She’s always moved by Egyptian cellist Hassan Moataz during his featured solo in Pierre Boulez’s “Messagesquisse.”
And nothing said during the orchestra’s discussion of current events can change any of that.
“The reality is that if we talk about not the extreme people and all the sides, I think that most of the people want peace and want to find a solution,” said Katz. “They don’t want to keep this war going on. But unfortunately, these people are not the ones who influence.”
As much as the music brings the players together, the outside world does intrude. Tyme Khleifi, a violinist from Palestine, joined the orchestra in 2004. She considers it courageous how the members, who grew up viewing many of their peers as their enemies, learn to build common ground.
“It gets easier with the years but it’s always hard,” said Khleifi, 23.
She remembers a particularly difficult time in 2006 during the war between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“We were rehearsing and meanwhile, back home, the two sides were killing each other every day,” said Khleifi. “It was really emotional and hard. On top of that, a lot of the Arab members were not able to join us that year because of the war and because they were not able to fly because of their government or their airport was bombed.”
But the orchestra’s members continued to play and work, as they do now even when conflicts break out. That, Khleifi says, is a source of pride and hope.
“Music is the reason this orchestra still exists and why these members keep coming back and why we feel very devoted to this project,” she said. “It probably would not have been that way if it hadn’t been for music. Through music we’ve learned how to accept each other, communicate with each other, and how to listen and how to agree to disagree sometimes and still get on stage and play a Beethoven symphony absolutely beautifully.”Geoff Edgers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.