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members are issued with Spanish diplomatic passports allowing them freedom of movement, before launching an international tour. The orchestra is not able to perform in most of the countries represented by its members, but has enjoyed phenomenal critical acclaim elsewhere in the world.
Barenboim was born in Argentina in 1942 to Russian-Jewish parents. He gave his first piano recital in Buenos Aires aged just seven, moved with his family to Israel aged ten, and was being described by conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler as a ‘phenomenon’ by the time he was 11. The former music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Barenboim was named Conductor for Life at the Berlin Staatsoper in 2000 and Maestro Scaligero at La Scala, Milan, in 2006. The recipient of numerous awards for his conducting, piano recordings and human rights work, he is also the author of three books: A Life In Music, Parallels and Paradoxes (with Edward W Said), and Everything Is Connected, in which he outlines his belief that music offers us a unique model for understanding human relations and the world.
Clemency Burton-Hill, the granddaughter of a Jew from Belarus, is a British writer, broadcaster and violinist who has been involved with music projects in the West Bank and occupied Palestinian territories since 2004, including the al Kamandjati refugee camp music schools in Ramallah and Jenin. In January 2009, she was invited by Daniel Barenboim to join the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra as an honorary violinist on their tenth anniversary tour. She has also interviewed Barenboim on a number of occasions in print and on television, including the Proms, the BBC’s Culture Show, and the Berlin Philharmonic’s 2010 Europa Konzert, which will be broadcast on BBC4 later this year.
Clemency Burton-Hill: One of my strongest memories of rehearsing with you and the West-Eastern Divan is a moment when you reminded the members of the orchestra that every single one of their governments would stop them from being there if they could, and that what they were doing was therefore very brave. For all the adulation and acclaim that the Divan garners around the world, it strikes me that it is, essentially, a censored orchestra.
Daniel Barenboim: Yes, you’re probably right. The Divan is not acceptable to any of the countries represented by its members. We can’t play in any Arab countries except the Emirates, nor in Israel. The Israelis don’t understand why it is even necessary to make the gesture. And the Arab world mostly sees the Divan as a way of normalisation, in the sense of accepting Israel, and all the problems that involves.
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Clemency Burton-Hill: So the fact that those kids come together to make music with each other every year, in the face of governments who would silence them and despite recriminations from their friends and family at home, feels like something of a defiant act.
Daniel Barenboim: It is. And you know, I believe more and more that it is up to individuals – or minorities – to express things which are not acceptable to the majority. Because there is always a special angle that an individual or a minority can have. And maybe the majority will eventually follow, but you cannot start a new idea that is going to change things with the blessing of the majority.
Clemency Burton-Hill: How important is it that the orchestra be allowed to make music freely in the Middle East?
Daniel Barenboim: I think the full dimensions of the Divan will only be achieved when we are able to play in Tel Aviv, Damascus, Beirut, Cairo, because that is really what it is all about. On the other hand, if the conflict was resolved there would hardly be a need for the Divan. And so it is a bit of a contradiction in terms. The Divan came into existence and continues to develop because of the conflict, and it has not yet been fully able to push through its idea of accepting the narrative of the other, the point of view of the other. For that you need a yearning voice for justice and for compassion, from both sides. And the Israelis as a majority I don’t think have a compassion for the rights of the Palestinians, otherwise they wouldn’t be occupying the territories for so many years and they wouldn’t blockade Gaza.
Clemency Burton-Hill: You have said that ‘Our challenge in the 21st century is to use music not only as an escape from life – in the sense that you come home fed up, put on music, and forget your troubles – but also as a way of making sense of the world. Music is not an alternative to living; it’s a model for living.’ So when music is censored, or silenced, is there much more at stake than merely entertainment and pleasure?
Daniel Barenboim: Yes, of course. I think history has shown us that many people are afraid of the effect of music. It can be very exalting, it brings people to expressions of solidarity and of enthusiasm – which is not always the case with the government. That is why music was used and manipulated so unashamedly by dictatorships. By the Nazis, by the Soviets ...