Next year in Damascus:

How Barenboim's Ramallah concert affected Israeli musicians

Noam Ben Zeev
August 24, 2005

RAMALLAH - As if magic words were spoken, the Qalandiyah roadblock opened wide on Sunday morning and the convoy of armored cars, which arrived with a police escort, passed through without even stopping. None of the soldiers had the convoy stop by the side of the road to begin the routine inspection. There's a concert tonight, the soldiers knew, and the dozens of Israeli musicians streaming in, to take part in it, had already been outfitted by the government of Spain with diplomatic passports.

Anyone driving behind the convoy, however, was stopped, and was only able to watch as it was swallowed up in the dust of the potholed road leading to the city. The roadblock was closed once more and the many vehicles there were inspected with nerve-wracking meticulousness. "We'll never get back by 10:30," grumbled the taxi driver. He made a quick U-turn, and put his foot down.

A biblical landscape unfurled through the window of the car, which hurtled along empty roads between settlements, crossing through Arab villages, bypassing Ramallah for 40 minutes, and then climbing a hill and eventually entering the city like a king, without a single checkpoint, without even the shadow of an Israeli soldier, as if this taxi ride were defiantly protesting the foolishness of the checkpoint system - with its VIP lanes, its wretched system of permits and passes and its bureaucratic runaround, which every veteran driver knows how to bypass, when needs be.

The concert in Ramallah was meant to be the last stop on the current tour of the Diwan East-West orchestra, founded in 1999 by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim. Its players, who, as they have done every year, gathered from all over the Middle East, performed throughout the summer under Barenboim's baton in Spain, Brazil, Argentina, Scotland, England, and Germany. Now they were about to realize the dream of the founders and perform in one of the focal points of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The morning rehearsal of Mozart's Sinfonia concertant for four woodwinds and Beethoven's Fifth went well. A few dozen reporters and curious spectators attended. In the afternoon, the musicians had a chance to rest on the lawn next to the auditorium, the Palace of the Arts. The Arab and Spanish musicians went to a hotel; the green lawn was full of Israelis, who were not permitted to leave the compound, and with armed Palestinian policemen, who were hired to watch over them.

Camouflage uniforms and jeans and T-shirts, violins and Kalashnikovs, Hebrew and Arabic, and young faces astonishingly similar to one another all mixed together, on a hilly slope on the outskirts of the city and its big buildings. "The days of the messiah have arrived," said one of the Israelis, who gaped at his colleagues engaged in a backgammon tournament on the grass with guards from Jibril Rajoub's forces. "Yeah, it's only a shame they're trouncing us," said his friend.

Violins and Kalashnikovs

The Israeli musicians could not have even imagined this pastoral scene even 12 hours earlier. In the lobby of their hotel in East Jerusalem on the evening before their journey to Ramallah, they were expressing mainly fears of the unknown. "Yes, I'm scared. Very very scared. I have not been to an Arab city, and I don't know what to expect. All of the stories I've heard are one big jumble. I am interested, and I want to go, but I nearly decided not to," said violinist Daniel Cohen.

Doron Alperin, another violinist, said he very much wants to go, but is afraid of snipers shooting at the convoy, and about the fact that their drivers will be Palestinians: "Couldn't they have hired Spanish drivers?" he said. Young trumpeter Boris Kretzman, 18, was in a state, worried that thugs might harass them.

Yuval Shapira, another trumpeter, summed it up like this: "I think most of the people are going only because of their desire to please the maestro. They're more afraid of Barenboim not calling them again than of being in Ramallah, and maybe they're in denial because it is hard to admit it. When he asked me, I had only a second to decide, and I admit I said yes because I didn't want to disappoint him. I'm not going happily - except for the happiness I will have playing with Barenboim."

Horn player Sharon Polak added: "I'll go because I cannot afford to hurt the group. I have an obligation to the orchestra and to the music."

"You don't see this as a goal, above and beyond the musical part of it?" asked violist Tal Teodoro. "After all, there is a political and also a personal dimension to the visit - for each one of us."

"There will also be international publicity around it, and that is important," said violinist Yishai Lantner.

"I'm certain that this trip will reveal to us, too, something about ourselves, not only to the world," replied Teodoro. "I'm really happy, and I was happy from the moment the idea arose. My fear is that our hosts could be hurt, not us."

"Sniper or no sniper," joined in Doron Alperin, "I very much want to go, even though my parents were against it and I had a very big fight with them. I told them I am afraid to go on buses in Tel Aviv, too, but even so I don't stop living my life as usual. But that didn't exactly convince them. The fight was not resolved; I'm going against their will."

And the concert will help in some small way to promote peace?

Alperin: "Barenboim said we are pioneers, and that is the word that grabbed me, and very much affected me. Yes, I think it will have an effect. The timing is perfect - on the one side, the disengagement, and on our side, the music making. It can cause a change, and this is a historic moment," replied Alperin.

The violinist Assaf Maoz added: "`History' is kind of a big word. Maybe it won't have an effect, because we are ahead of our time. Nevertheless, the fact that I am not entering Ramallah with a stick that can shoot, but with a stick that makes music - that is what is important."

"Can't we get off the political business a bit?" sighed cellist Yael Rubinstein. "We are not politicians, and in my opinion, music is something not political, and the project could have been made a lot less political and a lot more musical and human: looking at the people there as equals - after all, people are the same everywhere, and want the same thing."

The fear has passed

Six in the evening, and the sun begins to set on the lawn of the Palace of the Arts. The backgammon tournament is over, and the Israeli musicians get up from the lawn, fold up the tanning mats, collect books and cameras and cigarettes boxes, and begin preparing for the concert. The fear has passed. Daniel Cohen and his colleagues are awed by the dedication of all the Palestinians who are looking after them, by the human beings they have discovered here.

"When the moment of truth came, when we entered the city, I was no longer afraid: my curiosity overcame the fear," says Cohen.

"This is the realization of a dream. I feel as if I am becoming more and more leftist," says Yishai Lantner, "because now I understand that there is life here. They never show that on television."

Tal Teodoro complains: "Why don't they take us to the city? We're stuck here, and it isn't fair."

At seven o'clock, the flow of visitors all at once increases, the lawn becomes crowded and festive, and a tension can be felt in the air. Crews of journalists and cameramen from all over the world inundate the site and hunt for people to interview, but interestingly enough most Israeli media outlets have not sent representatives to cover the convergence of Israelis and residents of Arab states playing with superstar conductor Barenboim.

Inside the hall, people are beginning to vie for seats, and half an hour before the start of the concert, there is no room, even on the steps. Over 1,000 people crowd the hall, including children, women draped in head coverings, politicians (among them Nabil Shaath and Mustafa Barghouti), guests from abroad (including Maryam Said, widow of the Palestinian-born literature scholar), and even two Israelis. Those who are kept outside watch on an oversized television screen placed by the organizers in the lobby. The concert is being broadcast live on the Arte channel (the broadcast brought the channel its highest-ever viewer ratings).

The enthusiasm surges, and breaks out in applause when the four soloists and the conductor rise to the stage. Barenboim bows to the audience, which stands up on its feet for a round of applause that refuses to end. The eyes of the musicians are shining and Barenboim turns to them and raises his baton.

Mozart's Sinfonia concertant, despite its being an undeveloped composition and not one of the composer's great works, sparked interest due to its unique execution, without anything to do with the nationality of the four brilliant soloists. The playing and the conducting of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony blotted away any thoughts of the unique circumstances of the performance. Barenboim cut short the applause of the audience with a sharp wave of the hands, revisited the opening motif - the tapping out of the four sounds - and embarked on a musical journey at breakneck speed.

After the second lyrical movement, with its sumptuous sound, and the third dance movement, the sound faded into a pianissimo pizzicato. The orchestra increasingly lowered the volume of the sound, almost to a static quiet, which stopped the breathing of the audience; and from there - in an almost alarming tempo, the likes of which have not been heard in the Fifth Symphony, Barenboim rushed to an ingenious finish in major. "We couldn't understand where that speed came from," said Doron Alperin in Tel Aviv on the day after the concert. "He had never conducted Beethoven that way before. There was electricity in the orchestra and emotion pulled at the throat. What an ending to our trip!"

In the end, your fears were completely unfounded?

Alperin: "Yes, and I wouldn't have forgiven myself if I hadn't gone. During the intermission, I spoke with one of the Palestinian guards and asked him if he was happy we came. `You can't imagine how happy I am,' he replied, and it simply gave me goosebumps. `And you?' he asked. I told him I was in a state of ecstasy.

"We knew the roadblock closed at 10 P.M.," Alperin continues, "and at that hour Barenboim was still talking on the stage. So we hoped they would tell us that they're sorry, the roadblock is closed already, and you have to stay the night in Ramallah. But they simply threw us out when the last chord was played, we didn't even change clothes, and they left the roadblock open only for us."

Alperin says that after the concert, the musicians sat in their hotel talking enthusiastically until three in the morning. Is the fight with your parents over? "They watched the broadcast live, and my father, who plays in the Philharmonic, was very proud and was enthusiastic about the professionalism, as was my mother." And your fear of the Palestinian drivers? "I was wrong, and I am happy that I was able to learn from my mistake. Now I am only resentful that not everyone can see the situation through my eyes." Will you come again? "For sure. If I came here, there is no reason for me not to come back to Ramallah, or anywhere else. I am already looking forward to next year, to concerts in Damascus, Tel Aviv and Gaza. I'm dying to go to Damascus."

'Beethoven's Fifth isn't interested in where you came from'

Six weeks of hard work with the East-West Diwan orchestra, during which Daniel Barenboim flew off to concert tours on three continents while carrying on exhaustive negotiations with countless people - from regional leaders to worried parents - culminated in the high point of the project: the concert in Ramallah.

In an interview with Haaretz on the day after the concert, Barenboim showered praise on the orchestra. "We also played the opening of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde - and man, how they played it!" he says enthusiastically. "I have conducted the work many times, 12 years in a row at the Bayreuth Festival and who knows how many times in Berlin, and I never got these sort of results with other orchestras. The fact that they played it on this tour for the first time as if it was like Mahler's First Symphony, without even a trace of fear of the difficulty, with an open mind and an open heart, is what caused it."

The orchestra comprises about 70 young people from conflict states in the Middle East, including Israel and Syria. "The partiture does something that does not ordinarily exist in our region: equality," says Barenboim. "Beethoven's Fifth isn't interested in what you are or where you came from; and to some extent, the Diwan project is the same - it is removed from the conflict itself. After all, in an orchestra there is no musical problem between the musicians, or any competition. It isn't an athletic spirit, it's a spirit of support for one another. But until we reach this situation of equality in the real world too, we will not move ahead.

"There is no military solution to the conflict, and it hurts me that although we already know how it will end - a settlement in the spirit of the Clinton agreement, Taba and the Saudi initiative - we are still not achieving it. In order to reach such a settlement, we have to first of all contain it in our thoughts, and that is the goal of the project: a cognitive change.

"We are not only talking about the establishment of a Palestinian state, but about the future of the State of Israel and I am waiting for the real Israeli patriotic leader to get up and say, `They deserve what we have had since 1948, something that they would not be able to give up - independence.'"

During the intermission in the Ramallah auditorium audience, Barenboim said to the large crowd: "It has been said of us that we are an orchestra of peace; that may be a compliment, but this concert will not bring peace, we all know that. Understanding, tolerance, courage and the curiosity to listen to the narrative of the other - that is our goal.

"The lives of the two peoples living here are intertwined, so the fate of the one is necessarily the fate of the other. There are two peoples here, not only one - both of them have tradition and culture and history. Both of us live on this land, and either we kill each other over it, or we share it between us."

Originally published here.