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November 9 2018 - 7:28 AM
Orchestra brings message of peace to divided America
By Olivia HAMPTON
Washington, Nov 9, 2018 (AFP) - Israeli, Palestinian and other Middle
Eastern musicians brought a message of peace this week to an America torn by
caustic political discourse.
For nearly 20 years, youths from sworn enemy countries have performed
classical music together at the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the brainchild
of conductor Daniel Barenboim and late Palestinian American scholar Edward
"We are looking for something almost impossible, but still we try," said
Kian Soltani, 26, a rising Austrian Iranian cellist who gave a fiery
performance Wednesday at Washington's John F Kennedy Center for the Performing
The orchestra opened its program with Richard Strauss's symphonic poem "Don
Quixote," inspired by the early 17th century novel about the romantic
knight-errant who combats imaginary tyrants.
In many ways, the piece is a metaphor for the orchestra itself.
"If somebody would tell us that peace in the Middle East was impossible, we
wouldn't stop fighting. We would still continue like this because we believe
it's possible," Soltani, who played the title role, told AFP.
"It's the same for Don Quixote. He thinks he's a knight, he thinks his
dream is possible. Everyone is telling him it's not, but he doesn't care."
Quixotic as it may be, the project is making its first coast-to-coast
American tour just as the United States reels from a series of deadly hate
Politics and war have thwarted a goal to perform in all the members' home
countries. There was a concert in the West Bank city of Ramallah, in 2005, and
none in Israel.
"It's a pity," violist Miriam Manasherov, 37, told AFP.
"The day that will come that we can all play in Israel or in the other Arab
countries that I can't go to, that will be a huge success."
She plays the rotund Sancho Panza, who supports his master gone mad as he
pursues his ideals on love, justice and peace in an ugly world.
The pair also performed with their sections for Tchaikovsky's Fifth
Symphony, which evolves from dark to light in four movements linked by a
recurring "Fate" theme.
In "Don Quixote," the hero ultimately gives up on his dream, returns home
and dies among his loved ones. The orchestra is hoping to march toward a
- Changing attitudes -
While he acknowledges that the orchestra -- which borrows its name from
Goethe's German lyrical poems inspired by Persian poet Hafez -- has not had
much impact on the ground in the Middle East, Barenboim says the project has
left a "terrific" stamp musically.
"It has changed the attitude of every person who has been through it.
That's about 1,000 people," said Argentine-born Barenboim, who also claims
Israeli, Palestinian and Spanish citizenship.
"Nobody who comes into this with whatever preconceptions he has, goes away
thinking the same way."
The orchestra's first coast-to-coast US tour is a homecoming of sorts for
Barenboim, 75, who stepped down as the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's director
in 2006 after more than four decades that also saw him serve as conductor and
The Midwestern city was the tour's first stop, on Monday, ahead of
performances in Washington, New York's Carnegie Hall, Berkeley, California and
During their last US visit, in 2013, the orchestra performed the Beethoven
symphony cycle at Carnegie Hall, as well as in Boston and Providence, Rhode
"It is a conflict between two people who are deeply convinced they have a
right to the same little piece of land, preferably without the other,"
Barenboim said about the intractable Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"You cannot solve this militarily, unless you kill everybody, and you
cannot solve it politically.
"You can only solve it by coming to the point where both sides understand
that their destinies are inextricably linked and therefore accept the
existence of the other."
Deceptively simple as it may seem, that is the thrust behind the orchestra
and the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which trains gifted musicians
mainly from the Middle East and North Africa for a professional career.
To drive the point home, the concert's closing encore was the overture of
Richard Wagner's "The Mastersingers of Nuremberg," a work widely used in Nazi
propaganda and subverted once more by the orchestra's unique make-up, to
raucous applause and a standing ovation.