The young pianists in Duo Amal were brought together by music to spread a message of hope.

When two pianists perform on the one instrument, sharing the same cramped stool, there’s no room for ego or rivalry. There’s definitely no room for a political agenda or religious conflict to get in the way of pure music-making. 

Which is why Israeli-born Yaron Kohlberg and Palestinian Bishara Haroni chose to perform together under the name “Amal”, the Arabic word for hope. 

Over the phone, I hear the same word spoken in two different accents. “Our idea is helping to represent the hope that we have for better communication between peoples,” Yaron explains. 

His duo partner adds, “We believe that every problem can be solved through talk. Since music is a universal language, everybody can understand. It touches people in many ways. This might be the way forward.” 

Certainly, there is a younger generation of musicians from turmoil-stricken parts of the Middle East starting to collaborate on the world stage, as in Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. 

Bishara, an alumnus of that inspiring ensemble, insists that Duo Amal “like the idea of the Divan Orchestra, but we’re not following a model – it’s just simple and natural; that’s just what we believe.” 

The two pianists, both 28, began playing together when Yaron was invited to give a concert for peace in Norway four years ago. “I had met Bishara ten years before that, so I suggested he play with me at this concert,” he recalls. “We only had two days to prepare, but although we had a very short time, the musical connection was very strong between us. We felt that we understand each other and had formed something. It was a good match, so we decided to form the duo last year as a permanent career path.” 

Now, they have little time to themselves. “We like it more than playing solo, actually,” laughs Bishara. “It’s like saying a monologue, compared to acting with others. It’s much more challenging, much more surprising and creative.” 

Yaron chimes in: “We found our thing, I think. It’s good to go on stage with somebody you trust. There’s something about the dynamic of musical sharing, a real conversation we feel on stage.” 

The two are tight-knit offstage, too. “I mean, I am a bit sick of him!” Bishara jokes. “We also like very much to travel together. We have a lot in common; we both watch soccer together. Friends, you know.” 

In their Australian debut at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Duo Amal play the intimate Schubert Fantasy in F Minor on a single instrument before facing one another seated at two grands. Alongside classics by Rachmaninov and Prokofiev, they present two new works they have commissioned from classical composers of their respective homelands. Avner Dorman’s Karsilama, a world premiere, is based on a Turkish dance, while Samir Odeh-Tamimi’s offering, Amal, takes the name of its first interpreters. 

“It was important for us to include our local composers,” says Yaron, “But the Israeli piece isn’t particularly Jewish and the Palestinian piece isn’t particularly Arab.” Bishara adds, “We had no idea what they would write; we didn’t think about a political message.” 

Ultimately, their message of hope is more inward-looking. “When I played in the West-Eastern Divan,” remembers Bishara, “once in Austria we were at a concert and a guy in the audience was asking, ‘How can they play the notes?’ He couldn’t imagine that Arabs could read music. If you expose it more, you can change the thinking. It’s more individual rather than a mass effect.” 

“We are doing things the way we see them,” says Yaron simply. “The Divan Orchestra is a great initiative and it’s something very big that brings people from Arab nations together, artificially in a way. But what we are doing is that we just know each other as two friends and we have our own communication. It’s very personal. 

“We started off at two different points and became much closer as friends and musicians. This is our message: once there is good communication between people, they can really overcome differences.” 

Duo Amal play at the Melbourne Festival on October 24. View event details here.