A spell of fatigue and dizziness barred me from tonight’s Beethoven’s 9th at the Proms. Nothing else could have, and certainly no suspicions that some nut would use the appearance of an Orchestra uniting native Israelis and Arabs at the Proms as an excuse to stage a political protest (or far worse) on the night of the Opening Olympic Ceremonies.
I wanted to go desperately. Not because I thought the performance would have been so wonderful, or because it’s an Israeli-Arab orchestra. Rather, it’s Beethoven, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the Proms, three subjects I’m as fascinated by as anything in my life. If there ever were a concert tailor-made for me to go, tonight was it.
It certainly wasn’t Daniel Barenboim that pulled me there. Daniel Barenboim’s view of Beethoven is as fascinating as it is dogmatic. Whereas most other musicians of our day pay heed to the advice of musicologists to play close heed to Beethoven’s metronome marks and a chamber-orchestra complement of strings, Daniel Barenboim plays Beethoven as though it’s still 1932 - huge orchestras, broad and flexible tempos, weighty bass-heavy sound. There is no attempt made to play Beethoven as he saw himself, this is Beethoven as he was played accumulated after a century of accumulated performance tradition - with (nearly) all the moss and ivy unstripped from the varnish. It is neither Beethoven for the age of Beethoven nor Bjork, it is Beethoven for the age of Wagner.
No conductor in the world - not Thielemann, not Runnicles, not Gergiev, and certainly not any of the other major opera house directors - makes Wagner as exciting as Daniel Barenboim. With Barenboim, those inevitable forty minutes at a time of boredom and bombast can be cut down to twenty or fifteen. No conductor has ever made Wagner sound like every note counts, but Barenboim usually comes closer than any living conductor and closer even than most from more fruitful ages of Wagner performance.
There is clearly something in Barenboim’s temperament: a mixture of showman and intellectual, that responds very deeply to Wagner. Many musicians clearly have such affinities with particular composers; Bernstein had it with Mahler, Schnabel with Beethoven, Casals with Bach. In each case, it manifested itself not only in a desire to play the music extremely well, but to explain the composer himself - to put the composer within the context of his time, of music history in its entirety, and his relevance to our contemporary world.
It should then follow that a conductor who has such a deep affinity for a composer should want to perform it in his homeland. As it happens, that homeland is unfortunately Israel. To perform it there is to ask to become an outcast, and that is precisely what Barenboim has become in his homeland.
As so few Jews found themselves throughout history, Barenboim was uniquely situated to privilege. As a child, he lived in Israel full-time for only two years. His father was a great piano teacher in Argentina and close friend to Arthur Rubinstein, and Barenboim’s gift was nurtured as few others are from the cradle. At different points he found himself mentored by Rubinstein, Igor Markevitch, Wilhelm Furtwangler, John Barbirolli, Nadia Boulanger, Otto Klemperer, Isaac Stern, Gregor Piatagorsky, Edwin Fischer, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and even that twice-over Nazi party member Herbert von Karajan. Did any other Israeli of his years generation that level of privilege in any other field? Any at all?
Barenboim is widely reviled in the country he still thinks of as home. He brought the opera orchestra he’s lead since 1992, The Berlin State Opera Orchestra, to Israel for the express purpose of breaking the Wagner taboo. He has not only criticized Israeli treatment of Palestinians in the most strident possible terms, but also made statements to the effect that Israeli society has become sick and rotten at its core. As it happens, I agree with most every gesture and statement he’s made. And yet there’s still something about it that sits very wrongly with me.
Barenboim says that Israel has lost the sense of mission and moral purpose which he loved as a child in the 50’s. Does Barenboim have any memory what happened in Israel between 1952 and 1954? Israel had no more (or less) sense of mission nor moral purpose even then - the sole difference was that the country’s survival was far less guaranteed. Israel was in such fiscal danger that they had to take $3 billion in reparations from West Germany. Even then there were nearly a dozen lethal incidents in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, some were government-sponsored, some civilian. Right-wing Israeli militants not only threatened violence against the government as they do today, they attempted to carry it out - like the 1953 attempt to bomb the Department of Education by the terrorist organization Brit HaKanaim.
Life in a tough neighborhood is always hard. It’s very easy to sentimentalize the scrappy underdog country which finds itself beset by problems on all sides yet still manages to pull through. But Barenboim himself lived in this underdog country for only two years, and since then has been able to look on Israel from the perspective of a Citizen of the World - welcome in every first-world country in precisely the way nearly all other Jews would not be (still). Israel has been faced with threats to its very existence from before it was even a country. Even if he doesn’t agree with every decision the Israeli government made, why should Barenboim begrudge Israelis for wanting a small portion of the security which he takes for granted?
There is a similar question which besets the biography of Barenboim’s now deceased bff, Edward Said. Said is, still, the pre-eminent Palestinian intellectual voice - and like Barenboim combined the role of intellectual with a showman’s flair for activism and agitation. But in Said’s case, as in Barenboim’s, there is a troubling question of how such well-off people can claim to speak for those less fortunate than they. How can a son of wealth who could simply live in his parents’ Cairo house after Israel took away his Jerusalem home have any idea what true exile from a homeland means? It not only discredited his authoritative-seeming criticisms of Israeli violence, it discredited his authoritative-seeming criticisms of Palestinian violence too.
The West-East Divan Orchestra may yet prove to be the cornerstone of both their achievements. I will never forget the tears in my eyes when I first heard their wind soloists in the slow movement of Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante K. 333. It literally felt to me as though they were describing a dream of a better world, a longing for the balance which still eludes everyone who lives in that region. Anyone who doubts that music cannot express concrete things must hear that recording.
Yet people as well-educated as Said and Barenboim must know that there is absolutely nothing which the West-East Divan Orchestra can do except make a futile, sentimental gesture toward the peace which the Middle-East clearly eludes. If it accomplishes so little for peace, then is there any point to it but self-aggrandizement - a kind of exploitative posturing that makes Barenboim taken more seriously as an intellectual and political, perhaps even musical, figure, but brings the conflict no closer to resolution. And if such an orchestra does not bring our world closer to peace, does it then mean that it brings us farther away?
But maybe, just maybe, on that 1% of 1% of 1% chance that some leaders will be so moved by the sight of Arab and Israeli musicians playing together in perfect harmony that they can imagine a better solution to the Middle East conflicts, it will have been an entirely worthwhile project. And if it is so, then even if the entire point of the orchestra is to massage Daniel Barenboim’s ego, it will have been entirely worth doing.
23 minutes ago