Text size

RAMALLAH - "I know that it is hard for you to believe your eyes, but what you see before you here, on the stage - is reality," said Daniel Barenboim, and in the tense silence that prevailed in the small, crowded concert hall in Ramallah on Friday, his emotional remarks sounded like a prophecy that was being fulfilled. On the stage, with glistening eyes, sat the performers of the Palestine Youth Orchestra, the first of its sort in Palestinian history. And when Barenboim, the greatest conductor of his generation, waved his hand, they raised their instruments, ready to produce the first symphonic chord in their homeland, and the audience held its breath.

And in that frozen moment, an identical situation was recollected: In that same part of the world, 70 years ago, the greatest conductor of his day - Arturo Toscanini - stood in a small, crowded hall in Tel Aviv, facing an orchestra that had just been founded: The Land of Israel orchestra, which was known in English as the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. He raised his hand, and a small, isolated audience hungry for culture, glued to radio sets, also held its breath. International recognition was what it desired more than anything, in 1936, and the orchestra under Toscanini's baton, which eventually became the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra, symbolized the beginning of its independence. Barenboim, for whom the Israel Philharmonic served as his musical home since childhood, sharply lowered his hands, and the opening notes of Bizet's "Carmen" sounded in the space.

They live here too

"A person who is determined to do something constructive with his life needs to come to terms with the fact that not everyone is going to love him," said Barenboim in a series of conversations, press conferences and interviews he held in Israel and in the Palestinian Authority during the past week, after arriving here for several concerts and the Wolf Prize ceremony at the Knesset, which was held yesterday. "In Israel, there are a lot of people who are very grateful for my activities, but apparently there are also a lot of people who are hostile toward me because of this; and I have no problem with that."

During his current visit, the negative feelings have grown. The anger over Barenboim's musical activity among the Palestinians has mingled with the insult at his having darted to play a work by Richard Wagner in Israel in 2002, and Knesset members have used violent expressions in describing him. "I'm not bringing the scandal," he says. "They're making it here. I'm coming to perform and to advance musical education - yes, in the PA as well. Are people so shortsighted that they can't see the importance of the connection with our neighbors and the obligation that we have toward them?

"There's one piece of land here, call it what you will - the land of Israel or Palestine, and until 1948, everyone who lived here was a Palestinian, but since then, we Jews have had a new destiny. We won independence, and some of the responsibility for finding a solution lies on our shoulders." When asked to explain why so many people disagree with this opinion, he replies: "We haven't managed to digest this sharp transition, from a majority that was ruled over for 2,000 years to a majority that is ruling over another people - and this within only 19 years. We haven't developed the ability to grasp that there are people who have a historical story that is different from ours. People who also live here and do not understand what the justification is for a state exclusively for Jews. I'm arguing that the time has come - but this time in reverse: In the past we said that `the time has come' to stand on our own two feet and achieve our independence. Now `the time has come' here too: to recognize our neighbors as equals and to end the conflict with them, in the realization that there is no military way of doing this."

Barenboim does not believe that his opinions are based on the fact that he lives far from the region.

"You don't need to travel far in order to oppose the occupation and the control over another people," he says. "There are a lot of people who are living here in Israel who see this no less than I do. Israel was not intended to be a colonialist nation, and the Jewish settlements in the territories are like a cancer in the body of the process. And acts like the separation wall testify to a profound lack of understanding of the essence of the conflict. We already have one Wailing Wall here, and now a double wailing wall is being created, over which they will weep on both sides. I can't make this wall tumble down, even if I were to enlist 300 musicians, but I shall do everything I can so that culture and music seep through every crack in it."

Therefore, music is a practical political step, he says. "Everyone has to act in his own field according to his ability, and in my field I can do projects in music and music education. My way is music, and as a musician, I fight against two things; against loud noise, but also against silence."

Only a first exposure

Last August, during his fifth visit to Ramallah, Barenboim announced a bold plan: the founding of an infrastructure for musical and multi-disciplinary education in all the Palestinian Authority territories and the founding of a youth orchestra within five years. His partners in this plan are the Palestinian National Conservatory, which opened in 1993, the long-established Friends' School, branches of which were opened in Ramallah and other Palestinian cities in the 19th century by the Quaker movement, and the Barenboim-Said Cultural Foundation, which was established last year in Andalusia by Barenboim and his friend, Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, who passed away a month later. The plan's annual budget is 100,000 euro, all of it funded by the foundation.

The pace that Barenboim set for fulfilling the plan looks rather ambitious, but "we're ahead of the timetable," he says. "Five teachers have already come from Berlin to live in Ramallah and are teaching string instruments and wind instruments - also in the schools in the refugee camps like al Amari. The children's thirst is tremendous, and it is amazing how quickly the interest is growing among them and how much talent there is there. At the concert, you will be able to hear something of this progress, but this isn't going to be an official inauguration of the orchestra, just an initial exposure of its nucleus."

In the hall's corridor, after Thursday's first rehearsal, the cautious tone already had vanished: "Did you hear that sound?" Barenboim asks enthusiastically. "Had I known that it was possible really to play a concert, I would have set more rehearsals. It's amazing! Why, there are children here who barely know how to tune an instrument." And the children played, indeed, like little angels: Under the baton of the musical director of the Chicago Orchestra and the Staatsoper Opera House in Berlin, someone who has conducted everything during the past half century, they produced moving sounds in the small pieces that they played.

The piano and muezzin mingled

On Friday afternoon, the busy streets around the Friends' School in Ramallah, where the concert was held, went silent. Nearby Manara Square and the surrounding busy neighborhoods were taking their Sabbath rest, and unusual figures appeared in the area: Teenagers dressed in black and white clothes, carrying in their hands and on their backs musical instruments in their cases - violins, a cello, a trumpet, woodwind instruments. They gathered in the school's circular courtyard for a final rehearsal. An hour later, the courtyard filled with an excited audience of young people and adults, musicians and well-known figures from the Ramallah social and political scene - and a mass of reporters and cameramen, nearly all of them foreign.

Barenboim opened with a recital of two Beethoven sonatas: the first, the early Opus 10, Number 3 in D major, including the slow, tragic movement largo e mesto, the sounds of which mingled with the sounds of the muezzin's call that came in from outside. For the second work, Barenboim chose a late sonata, Opus 109, and even the limited piano bowed to his wonderful virtuosity and his uncompromising expressiveness. The audience was delirious, while the children of the orchestra sat within reach of him on the stage, listening intently. After an intermission and a brief spell of organization they got ready for their premiere performance.

In a short speech, Barenboim dedicated the concert to the memory of Said, and voiced their joint philosophy: "music allows the individual to reflect his innermost being outward, and thus to influence others," he told the audience. "With music, a person cannot shut himself in - not inside himself and not inside his country." Subsequently he added: "I am not prepared to express criticism of the Israeli government here," as a buzz passed through the audience, "even though I certainly could have won applause if I were to do this. No, here I want to express my commitment to social justice, to the war on ignorance and to the aspiration to recognize the existence of the other."

Barenboim thanked the teachers and young musicians, and after he conducted adaptations of the overture to "Carmen" and Dvorak's "Slavonic Dances," the hall overflowed with calls and whistles, and eyes glistened with tears. A sense of historical occasion hovered over the hall, and only with difficulty did Barenboim, himself emotional, hush the emotive audience: "I must tell you how much this occasion reminds me of the first time I performed on stage. I was a boy of 7, and after I completed the program, the audience applauded again and again, like here. I played an encore - you know, baksheesh - but the applause didn't stop, and I played more and more baksheeshes, altogether, seven. And in the end, I addressed the audience and I said, apologetically: `I'm sorry, but I've played everything that I know!' And now I find myself again, for the second time in my life, in the same situation. Since that's the case, we'll play you one baksheesh, "Carmen," again, so you won't be disappointed."