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The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra Story

The use of the words “West-Eastern Divan” in the title of the orchestra refers to a collection of poems by the German poet Johann Wolfgang Goethe. And as its founders once said, “The reason we named the orchestra this way stems from the fact that Goethe was one of the first Germans to be truly interested in other countries—he started to learn Arabic when he was over 60.”

The idea of the West-Eastern Divan was conceived in 1999 in the minds of two artists and intellectuals—the Israeli, Daniel Barenboim, and the Palestinian, the late Edward Said. They decided to create a workshop for young musicians from Israel and various countries of the Middle East with the aim of combining musical study and development with the sharing of knowledge and comprehension between people from cultures that traditionally have been rivals. In this workshop, young musicians build upon their musical knowledge while living side-by-side with people from countries that may be engaged in conflict with their own. Its first sessions took place in Weimar and in Chicago, until in 2002 the orchestra was finally established in Seville, Spain thanks to the institutional and financial support of the Junta de Andalucía.

The West-Eastern Divan is not only a music project, but also a forum for dialogue and reflection on the Palestinian-Israeli problem. Through the cross-cultural contacts made by the artists, the project could have an important role in overcoming political and cultural differences between the countries represented in the workshop. In this model, an orchestra serves as a good example of democracy and civilized living.

The project is led by Barenboim and since Edward Said’s death by his widow, Mariam Said, and is financed by the Junta de Andalucía and other private sponsors. It is admired throughout the world because it combines a love for music with the necessity for a better understanding among Mediterranean cultures. Throughout its seven years of existence, this project has consistently proved that music is a useful way to break down barriers that were, up until now, considered insurmountable. It suggests that bridges can be built that encourage people to get closer, showing that it is possible for people from different backgrounds to co-exist peacefully—much in the same way that these young musicians will share scores, dining halls, and, above all, a passion for music.

While music will obviously not solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, it does play a role in bringing people together and allowing them to get to know one another. The only political aspect that permeates the workshop is the understanding that there is no military solution to the conflict.

An equal number of Israeli and Arab musicians provides the base of the orchestra, joined by Andalusian players. An added group of students from Spain and Palestine attend the workshop as observers.

Every year, the Junta de Andalucía grants scholarships to particularly talented musicians to study in Europe or the US. These scholarships allow some specially talented students with limited financial resources to access an excellent musical education. Some of the recipients of these scholarships now hold positions with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, the Damascus Symphony Orchestra and the Cairo Opera among others.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra meets every summer in Seville. With an intensive work plan— each session lasting an entire day and combining different activities — the young artists develop their musical abilities within a peaceful and fitting environment. They also discuss different topics and offer different points of view on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Once the rehearsal period is over, the orchestra embarks on an international concert tour.

Since its creation in 1999, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has performed in several countries in Europe (Spain, Germany, United Kingdom, France and Switzerland) and the Americas (USA, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil). In August 2003 the orchestra played for the first time in an Arab country with a concert in Rabat, Morocco, and in 2005 it performed in the Middle East for the very first time with a concert in Ramallah, Palestine, which was broadcasted live by ARTE, the French-German channel.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra already has a few very successful recordings: four CDs/DVDs have been released together with Warner Music. The first one, which came out in July 2005, contains a live CD and a DVD of the 2004 tour closing concert at the Victoria Hall in Geneva. The programme included Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor op. 64, Sibelius’s Valse Triste and Verdi’s overture to La Forza del Destino. The DVD also includes, apart from the Geneva concert, the documentary Lessons in Harmony · In Conversation – Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said.

The second CD contains the live recording of the emblematic concert performed at Ramallah’s Cultural Palace in August 2005. The program includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 and Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K297b.

A double DVD was also released simultaneously with the afore- mentioned Ramallah concert, as well as the documentary "Knowledge Is The Beginning," which depicts the orchestra’s daily life, with its rehearsals, travelling, fears and hopes expressed in person by the musicians themselves, and their director, Daniel Barenboim. The DVD "Live in Ramallah/West-Eastern Divan Orchestra“ won the “Echo Klassik 2006” as best DVD production of the year. For the same production Daniel Barenboim received the “Echo Klassik 2006” award as best conductor of the year. Other recent awards for the Orchestra include the Echo Klassik Special award 2005 as “Ambassador of Music”. The film “Knowledge is the Beginning” won the International EMMY Award 2006 in the arts programming category. In 2006 in its regular summer season the West-Eastern Divan affirmed its pioneering spirit by performing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in collaboration with the finest musicians of our day: Angela Denoke, Waltraud Meier, Burkhard Fritz and René Pape.

Highlights of the European tour 2006 included a performance at Hagia Eirene Museum in Istanbul and concerts at the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, at Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, at Berlin’s Philharmonic Hall and at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan. In Madrid the West-Eastern Divan performed an outdoor concert in front of an audience of 12.000. The concert in the Alhambra in Granada was live broadcast by ARTE to an international audience. Warner Classics recently released a live recording on CD of the Berlin concert.

This tour of the US will feature concerts of the West-Eastern Divan in Providence, Chicago and the Carnegie Hall in New York. The concert in honour of Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the United Nations on December 18 will feature as a highlight of this year’s appearance of the Orchestra in the US.

Future plans for the Orchestra include a residency at the Salzburg Festival this coming summer.