All Together Now – Mahler and Beethoven from the East-Western Divan Orchestra

All Together Now – Mahler and Beethoven from the East-Western Divan Orchestra Conductor: Daniel Barenboim, Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, Rome , 18.5.2011

Mahler: Symphony no. 10, Adagio

Beethoven: Symphony no. 3 “Eroica”

Piero Farulli (violist of the Quartetto Italiano) used to say that to be an adequate orchestral player you needed a good ear for what was going on around you, as well as your own contribution to it. He was also the founder of the Orchestra Giovanile Italiano (OGI), the Italian national youth orchestra. Because of his conviction, all those young players were given a grounding in chamber music, as well as sectional training in the instrument which they played. I hope you can hear what’s wrong with this one he would say to me during an OGI audition, then addressing the unfortunate candidate, Have you ever played chamber music? To which came the expected reply of No. If, with my vastly inferior ear, I heard that the candidate had other qualities (perfection of rhythm and intonation for instance) that ought to make a good orchestral player, I would gently remind him that since he was going to provide the missing chamber music training anyway, didn’t he think that other qualities might be taken into consideration? It’s a pleasure to disagree with you, he would say with a smile. And at that point he became uncharacteristically democratic and would go round the jury’s table collecting votes. My interventions sometimes saved quite a few heads from being chopped off.

All the same, Piero Farulli was fundamentally right. An orchestra in which the players are actively engaged in this double listening, which is the very essence of chamber music, produces a superior sound. Superior because there is an involvement in the music-making which is missing in orchestras which lack this training. Tony Pappano plays chamber music all the time with his Santa Cecilia orchestra, not for public performance, but for the sheer joy of making music together, thereby increasing understanding and respect for one’s colleagues. Daniel Barenboim does the same with the young players of the East-Western Divan Orchestra. And herein arises a challenge of the most interesting kind.

Everybody knows that communication between Israel and her Arab inhabitants and neighbours is largely restricted to insults traded between their political representatives. And that these gentlemen make almost a speciality of not listening to one another. But what if you were able to transliterate that communication into music? That was the ideal – an instantly pragmatic ideal – of the late Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim when they founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. No borders: we speak music here. And above all, foremost in our training, is listening to one another.

They had to overcome enormous bureaucratic problems of players travelling from one state to another, but once that was solved, communication was instantaneous. Take the violinist from Syria, sitting behind her music stand with a boy from Israel. In all probability, the girl has received lessons from a Russian teacher. (With the West seeing Syria as a threat, Russia, to even the balance, made befriended Syria cemented their relations by exporting some of her excellent instrumental teachers.) The Israeli probably had an American teacher. (That underlines another more publicised relationship.) The Russian and American schools of violin playing are very different. So one day (I am making this episode up but it must have happened many times over), the Israeli boy says to the Syrian girl something along the lines of, You seem to me to be making hard work of this passage. Look at my left fingers and my bowing wrist; I have a much easier way of doing it. She does. Then she thinks, Could violin playing ever be so easy? My story, of course, could just as easily have happened the other way round with the Syrian / Russian easing the performing life of the Israeli / American.

When communication is at this level it raises the question: where is the metaphor and where is the reality? That brings to mind the story of the Zen monk who dreamt he was a butterfly and upon awakening, shook himself and asked how he could know that he was not a butterfly dreaming he was a monk.

Said and Barenboim had a dream. That dream has become a reality. The participants in the project are so astonished at what is happening to them that they cannot be rightly sure they are not dreaming. Just listen to their testimony in Paul Smaczny’s superb, award-winning movie, Knowledge is the Beginning (issued on DVD by Euroarts). I thank our Zen brethren for giving me the image which perfectly fits them.

And to get back to the business I should be addressing in this article: what an extraordinary sound all this makes for. I should like to be able to tell you that the orchestra produced Mahlerian sonorities of a depth, never previously heard. They did no such thing. If this had been a performance from the Santa Cecilia orchestra I would have considered it extremely disappointing. But the air of expectation and feeling of good will in the full three thousand seat hall was at an all-high. Giorgio Napoletano, President of Italy, was here with a huge turn-out of ambassadors and journalists.

The players were feeling their way into the Mahler Adagio. In spite of clear, confident guidance from their captain, the terrain they were crossing was unfamiliar. That unfamiliarity communicated itself to their dedicated public. This was a Work in Progress. What they communicated to their audience was Bear with us, we are trying to arrive at the sense of this music. What made the occasion unique was the audience’s willing collaboration in this. We were with them in their musical adventure. A third dimension of listening had been introduced to the two I have already discussed: ours, the audience. That is what might be called active listening. In this sense, an unforgettable experience.

When it came to the Eroica symphony, the Orchestra was impressively on home ground: bursts of musical energy which lent instant sense to Beethoven’s pages. There was only a hint of uncertainty in the Adagio; for the rest, it was the vitality of the young players leading their admiring audience. A flute and oboe in the finale would be immediately able to find work in any of the world’s top orchestras.

On the way back to the car park, seeing the players coming out of the artists’ entrance, I decided to indulge in a spot of investigative journalism. I saw two little boys with violin cases. Twins? They spoke with one voice; it felt like having a conversation with Tweedledum and Tweedledee. They were Palestinians, said one; from Nazareth, said the other; aged thirteen, they both chipped in. With a telephone check, it turned out I had been talking to the youngest members of the Orchestra; the average age is twenty-four. And thank you for being such a nice audience they called after me, as though I might have been the spokesperson for that gathering. Polite, too, these Middle Eastern children. I really did feel as though I were back with the Zen butterfly monk.

Jack Buckley