Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made its keenly anticipated local debut on Sunday afternoon, in an all-Beethoven performance hosted by the Celebrity Series of Boston. A large audience filed into Symphony Hall for the occasion, and seemed thrilled to be there, at a time when news of fruitful coexistence activities in the Middle East comes all too rarely.
Founded in 1999 by Barenboim and the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said, this ensemble is made up of Israeli Jews and Arabs from across the region. By now it has built an established musical track record but must still contend with the shifting sands of regional politics (it has still not been able to perform in all the countries from which its own members hail). Close readers of Sunday's program might have noted that the musicians’ names were not printed. This was for security reasons, given the dynamics at play in home environments on both sides, in which many coexistence initiatives are being increasingly viewed with suspicion or worse, as “normalization” with the enemy.
Barenboim serves as the group’s conductor and philosopher king. In interviews he quotes Artur Schnabel and Ferruccio Busoni about the meaning of music, and speaks of the benefits accrued by young musicians on opposing sides of the conflict by simply participating in the countless small common tasks that go into shaping a musical performance. Onstage, the group presents as a single unified ensemble, and in fact these days a sizable contingent of Spanish musicians also play among its ranks, after years of the orchestra making its home in the city of Seville.
In strictly technical terms, the players seem to range widely. The group’s woodwind section is its strongest asset, while the strings are less uniformly high-caliber and can sometimes produce a sound rougher and less deep than other ensembles on the world-class level to which it is aspiring. On the podium Barenboim seems little concerned with the niceties of ensemble work, instead channeling older approaches of the Furtwängler school, with an emphasis on broad spacious phrasing and long singing lines. His version of the conductor’s job has little to do with fastidiously tending a beat — he will often simply stop conducting mid-bar before leaping dramatically back into the fray — and much more to do with the gradual unveiling of musical ideas, the husbanding of spiritual forces.
WEST-EASTERN DIVAN ORCHESTRA
Both the pros and cons of this approach were on view Sunday. In its actual execution, Beethoven’s Second Symphony was less subtle, distinguished, or distinctive than one might have hoped for, but everything seemed to pull together after intermission for the “Eroica” Symphony, particularly in its final two movements. The Scherzo was taut and robust, the music fed by a remarkable energy both unflagging and primal. And Barenboim led the Finale with real heat and bravado, making it feel like the musical event that this large and appreciative audience had come for.
The next day, the orchestra returned to Providence, where it has been deepening ties with Brown University. Then it is on to New York, where a complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies begins on Wednesday night in Carnegie Hall.