Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Cal Performances

Written by:
Michael McDonagh
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What do we expect when we go to hear two repertory pieces played live, and is that expectation heightened when the musicians in Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are Israeli and Arab? Do their complex histories and conflicting narratives affect how we hear them? Is politics inextricably linked to their countries of origin, and those of the two composers on the program — one from Germany, with whom we’re supposed to be friends, and one from Russia, with whom we’re supposed to be mortal enemies? Or does music breathe a cleaner, purer air? These are just a few of the questions which Barenboim’s program provoked just by being itself. Others were answered by the sheer musicality of the afternoon which literally struggled to breathe in the wake of our current Northern California brush fires which continue to burn.

One expected to get a gloss on the why can’t we just manage to get along in the Israel/Palestine stalemate, and/or vis-a- vis the Arab states,or why do Lebanon and Syria refuse to accept Israel as a ” Jewish state ” ? But what we got here was music pure but never entirely “simple.” But how could that not be when our inner lives are crowded, or conflicted? Barenboim has the unenviable knack of never confusing the forest for the trees. And his approach to these two apparently completely different pieces was a marvel of clarity and composed purpose. His gestures were calm but pointed, and nothing intimidates an orchestra more than when a conductor like George Szell who admonished his to “relax!” when they were rehearsing a Haydn symphony.

It’s often been said that German music is intellectual, and Russian music emotional though I think “cerebral ” vs. “gestural ” or “physical ” is more to the point.The German Richard Strauss (1864-1949) was a famously literary composer and his 1898 tone poem Don Quixote, is the fifth of his eight, Also Sprach Zarathustra (1895-6) being the most famous due to the use of its opening fanfare as the Main Title in Kubrick’s 2001 ( 1966 ). His 1898 Don Quixote or ” Fantastiche Variationen uber Ein Thema ritterlichen Characters ” ( Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character ” is certainly literary and quite pictorial. It’s also a quasi concerto for solo cello and solo viola — the Austrian-Persian Kian Soltani and Israeli Miriam Manasherov here — subtly integrated into the whole — which though written for large orchestra has an intimate chamber music character with the overlapping one to a part quality native to that form. Barenboim, who made his debut as a Wunderkind pianist at age seven, has played chamber music all his life so he gets Don Quixote from the inside out. It’s not music imposed from without but music from being within, and it squares with Mahler’s belief that ” the real art of conducting consists in transitions ” — MTT take note — and Barenboim and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra accomplished these without a moment’s sweat. Each of its ten episodes weren’t interruptions but pauses in a continuous conversation, and Soltani as the Don and Manasherov as his sidekick Pancho Sanza made these entertaining and surprisingly moving.This was not just another day in the life of a great orchestrator.

Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) is usually seen as the suffering romantic artist par excellence which sidelines his integrity as a composer. His Symphony # 5 in E minor (1888), which he had grave doubts about when he was writing it, and after its premiere, is one of his most imaginative pieces and you could feel Barenboim and his musicians acutely listening.This is what music’s all about otherwise there’s no intimacy or drama which translates into suspense because we’re always waiting to see what someone will say or do next. Tchaikovsky was a theatrical composer even when he didn’t write for the stage and there was drama here in the tiniest gesture — from the halting beginning A clarinet opening theme — to the huge concluding tutti climax, and there were no chinks in the armor. The winds nostalgic when needed, the horns burnished, or full-out triumphant, the strings smooth as silk or electric especially in the “furioso” unison passage for violins in the fourth movement which almost made me jump from my seat it was so beautiful. Each gesture, as in the Strauss, was inevitably linked to the next, the tempos right, the weights carefully indited. And of course that rocking bass line in different choirs in the last movement, and wonderful syncopations throughout. Barenboim seemed to conceive both pieces as a continuous variation on one overriding tempo — “always the same but never the same ” as Mahler once said. But the biggest takeaway from this concert was seeing how joyfully everyone played, and during the standing ovation it was crystal clear that they loved what they were doing and who they were doing it with, or as Barenboim observed — “we don’t have the luxury to bathe in pessimism because it only makes it worse. ”

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