In 1999, Barenboim had a mad idea – to unite Israel and the Arab states in one youth orchestra.
For your West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, performing the complete Beethoven cycle at the Proms must be a very big deal.
Oh, no question. I’m told the Proms haven’t had a Beethoven cycle since 1942 or something like that. Then the combination of the Proms and the Olympic Games makes it a very special occasion – for the musicians in particular. With all of the affection from the public and the promenades, it’s a very special thing.
When the orchestra was created in 1999, one of its aims was to promote a dialogue between Israel and other countries in the Middle East.
Yes, but our project is not a political one. I know when I say that everybody sort of smiles benignly. It’s a project between Israelis and Palestinians and other Arabs, but still it’s not political, because it doesn’t have a political line. We believe exactly the opposite: that the Israeli and Palestinian conflict is not a political conflict.
This isn’t a conflict between two nations; it’s a conflict between two peoples who are deeply convinced they have the right to live on the same piece of land. This is a human problem. And therefore it cannot be solved militarily; it cannot be solved politically; it can only be solved with human understanding and with the acceptance of the rights of the other. That’s what we in the orchestra strive to practise, and it provides us with an alternative way of thinking. But, you know, it’s like with many things – alternative medicine takes much longer than antibiotics.
So do you think the orchestra has made inroads since 1999?
I think the orchestra has become something of a myth in the western world, but it is either criticised or totally ignored in the Middle East. I think the full dimension of the orchestra will come to the fore the day we can play in all the countries that are represented in the orchestra – in Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt. So we certainly have a long way to go.
The complete cycle of Beethoven is a huge challenge for any orchestra – especially one made up of fairly young musicians. How are you preparing the orchestra for this task?
We’ve been playing Beethoven symphonies since the day of inception of the orchestra; we learn and perform a Beethoven symphony every year. It’s something we’ve put our minds to for a long time and something that has really become the essence of the orchestra.
What’s the West-Eastern Symphony approach to Beethoven?
Well the first thing to know about the West-Eastern orchestra is that, from the sound point of view, it’s a central European orchestra, which I think is correct as it’s the sound the Beethoven Symphonies need.
There’s also the fact that these musicians have been playing together for so many years, and always with me, unlike most orchestras, which have four or five conductors every year. So we have a lot of stability, and that leads to musical rigour – making sure the phrase goes all the way to the fourth bar, not just to the end of the third. There is something very, very rigorous about us that requires a lot of physical energy. So it’s a good thing the musicians are young and have plenty of stamina.
I’ve always been impressed by your spontaneity as a pianist; you can play a work very differently depending on the mood of the night – especially when it comes to Beethoven. Are you less spontaneous in your approach with an orchestra of young musicians?
Absolutely not. The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra can play as it wants. It’s an extremely flexible orchestra. I never for a second feel, “My God, maybe I should not take this or that risk” – absolutely not. From that point of view, I conduct mercilessly.
So they can follow you no matter what.
Yes, no matter what I do. And you know, it’s not only the Beethoven Symphonies we’re playing, but in each program we play one major work of Pierre Boulez. Not every orchestra in the world can do that.
And so what informed that connection with Boulez?
Well the programs of the Proms are always slightly on the long side and the question was what to put with the Beethoven. First I thought of putting different works of different composers, and then I thought, why? If we’re doing all Beethoven we should find just one contemporary composer, and Boulez seemed to be the right one.
Is it because you see a connection between Boulez and Beethoven?
Not musically, but Boulez, like Beethoven, is someone who is summarised in his music. In his music he was sewing the past to the future, just like Beethoven did.
Beethoven once wrote, “Symphonies are the best representation of my true self. For some reason in my head I always hear the sound of a great symphony”. Do you think Beethoven is at his most Beethovenian in his symphonies?
I think even when he writes the piano sonatas, he treats the piano as a symphony orchestra. I think this is what he means.
And do you feel a very different bond with the music when you’re conducting, as opposed to playing piano?
No. Absolutely not. It’s musically exactly the same. You know, conducting and playing the piano are not two different activities; it’s just two facets of the same activity. I don’t have a different musical idea when I play from when I conduct.
Any plans to tour Australia?
I would be delighted to. Please let your readers know I have a real soft spot for Australia. I was four and a half months in Australia in 1958 and I came back for six months in ‘62. Then I went with the English Chamber Orchestra – and again with my first wife. I have lots and lots of happy memories from so many years ago, and I would dearly love to come back.
The East-Western Divan Orchestra’s 2-CD set Beethoven For All is out now on Decca Classics. For your chance to win one of 10 copies, enter here before July 19.
This article appeared in the July, 2012 issue of Limelight Magazine.
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