The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra:
Inside Stories

Photo by Manuel Vaca

There is no orchestra like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. I remember how surprised I was when I first experienced one of the WEDO’s specialities: someone in the winds just played a solo, it was beautifully phrased and shaped… and the entire orchestra, more than 100 Arab, Israeli and Spanish musicians, answered with a flood of kisses. Yes – they all kissed the air passionately, loud and frequent – greeting the beloved soloist. In other orchestras such gratitude is expressed by a gesture of rubbing the feet back and forth on the floor – not too loud, as not to disturb the conductor. Our conductor, Maestro Daniel Barenboim, has to live with the horrific noise of 100 loud Middle-Easterners kissing the air every few minutes. Because we do it not only when there is a nice solo, but also when someone jokes, plays a wrong note during a GP (General Pause) or arrives late to the rehearsal: do good or bad – you will be kissed.

The West-Eastern Divan is an orchestra of extremities and hot temper, born to fight ignorance. It all began in 1999, with a workshop for young Arab and Israeli musicians who met in Weimar for rehearsals, coaching sessions and political debates – the initiative of conductor Daniel Barenboim and writer Edward Said, who shared a dream to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through alternative channels. Music was their answer. What was meant to be a one-time event, quickly evolved into one of the most famous orchestras in the world.

I joined in 2009, shortly after completing my military service in the Israeli army, where I spent most of my time playing, or rather forcing classical music upon soldiers – contradictions are a normality in the Middle-East. The same goes for the only orchestra in the world, where musicians from all Middle-Eastern countries play together: while violent conflicts go on in our homelands, we play Mozart and Brahms. The WEDO meets a couple of times a year: once for a long summer tour (4-6 weeks long) and usually once or twice more for shorter projects – every meeting begins with intense rehearsals. In between tours we go on with our private lives, living and playing in many different places around the globe. In the summer of 2009 we all met in Pilas, a small town not far from Seville, where we stayed for two weeks of rehearsals prior to going on our tour. The air outside was dry and boiling, 40˚C. Inside a dark and chilly church we were rehearsing the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz.

Almost each Divan rehearsal begins with the fuss of rebuilding the stage. The Maestro’s wish is that we all sit as close to each other as possible. If you or your instrument were not scratched by your stand-partner’s bow by the end of the tour – you were either sitting too far or did not use enough bow (both equally tragic). As we all finally settle down to our places, the Maestro usually asks: “So, are you all reasonably uncomfortable?” After a rather chaotic tuning session – an honest but rather unsuccessful attempt to follow some sort of order – the rehearsal begins. Barenboim allows absolutely no compromises: dynamics go all the way, fingerings are decided according to phrasing, and have very little to do with the comfort of playing, each and every musician has to give everything they have at all times. If you play a wrong bowing, he will notice and give you a notifying look. From now on, every time this spot returns he will look at you again, to make sure that you have corrected your mistake – much like in the Middle East, there is no forgetting.

Our cello section

Many Divan members joined the orchestra on its very first days. Back then they were teenagers – now they are professional musicians, some already have children, some are members of world-famous orchestras such as the Berlin Philharmonic. The seniors still remember inspiring discussions with Edward Said and long talks about the future of the orchestra. Every year new members join the Divan. Applications are open to musicians from all Arab countries, from Israel and from Spain; live auditions are held in several European and Middle Eastern cities. We have Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Iranian, Turkish, Palestinian, Israeli and Spanish musicians.

In 2010 we began a three-year project, focusing entirely on the Beethoven symphonies cycle. In the course of three years, we toured with the nine symphonies all over the world, we recorded CDs, filmed DVDs and were featured in various documentaries. Maestro Barenboim spoke about structures, tensions, Enlightenment and discipline; Beethoven’s music as the realisation of political, social and philosophical ideas. Upon completing the very first rehearsal sessions, it became clear, that the orchestra is going on a mental and musical journey. In great depth, and with his captivating rhetorics, Barenboim led us further into a musical world which represents to him the values of Humanism. He revealed musical hierarchies and dynamic progressions and constantly emphasized the importance of mathematical progression in Beethoven’s music. I often heard him say, that music is all about time. Phrasing, volume and even the notes themselves are all controlled and shaped by various time units: time is music. And while dealing with the complexity of our times, the masterpieces, which we play – are timeless. The sound of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is a mixture of German traditions, hot tempers from sandy lands, vivid youth and plenty of passion.

In the past years, summer tours included concerts at the BBC Proms, Lucerne and Salzburg festivals. Often we finish the tour with an open-air concert in Berlin’s amphitheater – the Waldbühne. Our tour schedules include not only playing and traveling, but also important discussions. I often hear people outside the orchestra claim that aside of having Arab and Israeli members, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra does not really deal with politics. In fact, even without official discussions, the demographic reality of the orchestra makes it impossible to stay out of politics. The Divan exists to provide an alternative path for those who disagree; political debates and guest-lectures do take place. There are even debates on how should we debate and arguments about who should be invited to lecture – in this orchestra we talk a lot, and it isn’t at all easy. Multi-participant discussions of more than 100 people, are never a simple act; a discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is never calm. These Arab and Israeli musicians, who are extremely agitated about this conflict, who are personally affected by it on a daily basis, who have different backgrounds and different parents, naturally claim different political and social views. Put them all together to discuss politics and you will get a vivid impression of what it is like to be a part of one of the world’s most complicated human conflicts. Like music-making, debating and arguing can be done on very different levels. Our discussions vary quite a bit: sometimes they begin and end with provocations, endless repetitions, false facts and very little listening; and sometimes they lead us into precious moments of intimacy and empathy. Like music-making, this has less to do with right and wrong and everything to do with listening, learning and creating.

Not all discussions are political. The WEDO works in a very particular format – it began as a youth orchestra but matured together with its musicians. Musically speaking, it grew into a professional orchestra. This positive development keeps raising questions regarding the future of the entire project. Barenboim often opens these for discussion: how do we accept new and younger musicians without sacrificing the level we have achieved? How do we make it possible for those of us who are members in other orchestras to keep participating in the Divan’s projects? These questions among others, address logistic as well as ideological issues to which various solutions were suggested over the years.
When it comes to discussing, be it on political, social or musical topics – the talks do not end with the official discussions which are timed into our schedules. This is only where they begin. In fact, the most interesting talks happen after official meetings and in between – while eating, drinking, smoking and sight-seeing. That is when the true Barenboim-Said vision comes to life: Arabs and Israelis exchange ideas, share stories, collaborate and create brave friendships.

One of the best communal inventions of the WEDO is a ceremony which we conduct every time we go on a charter flight. I do not know how old this tradition is or how it began, but every time it happens I seriously think of world peace. Right after take-off, while the flight attendant begins the flight safety demonstration, we begin our own little ritual. It includes taking off one shoe and holding on to its laces from the plane’s ceiling (demonstrating the use of an oxygen mask); creating as much noise as possible with the metal buckle of the security belt (practicing correct operation); and finally, a rather sophisticated hand-choreography (assisting the flight attendant with the marking of the plain’s doors). If you ever wanted to see Arabs and Israelis cooperate perfectly in tune – you would have to join one of the WEDO’s private flights.

In the summer of 2014 it became clearer to me, what might be the greatest value of this particular orchestra. Emotionally speaking, the summer tour of that year was brutally hard for most of us. A terrible war was going on in Israel: Gaza was under heavy fire, and citizens everywhere in Israel were running to their bomb shelters. The tour took place during times in which we all felt defensive, each felt angry and scared, most of us knew a person who is now on the battlefield. During that tour, I felt that the social and musical situation in the orchestra creates an unusual environment in which rare mental support naturally exists. This is where the harsh reality in which we live and the frustration in light of a situation which we cannot really change, are met with an opportunity to grieve together, be mad together, create a massive sound. An orchestra cannot change politics and definitely cannot bring a peace agreement. But it can change the lives of many – of those who hear about it; of those who listen to its music. It absolutly changes the lives of its musicians.

The aim of the WEDO is to perform in all places which are a part of the Middle Eastern conflict. In reality, most of these places are out of reach for us. While the orchestra is invited every year to perform in Europe’s most prestigious festivals, performing together in our own countries of origin seems like a very far dream. We might have become close friends, but our countries are still enemies. Over the years there were a few exceptions: concerts in Ramallah, Doha and Abu-Dhabi, which all required massive planning and security. One of my most memorable experiences with the Divan happened very far from home, during our South-America tour. We arrived at Caracas – by far one of the most thought-provoking places I have ever visited. Upon arrival, we were given a private performance by one of the Simon Bolivar youth orchestras: a gigantic orchestra of about 300 musicians (including one very little guy on the triangle). They gave us an unforgettable performance of Mahler’s First Symphony. I still remember the mesmerising tension of those long silent notes in the beginning and the bursting flames which followed. Daniel Barenboim and Gustavo Dudamel shook hands, hugged and gave speeches. The performance took place not in a concert hall, but rather in a broad room where we all crammed in – two orchestras (with a total size of three), two conductors and quite a few journalists. When they finished playing their magnificent Mahler, we applauded as loud as we could. And then, all of a sudden the musicians of Simon Bolivar burst into a wild jam session – playing local music, dancing and spinning their instruments. We were on our feet and love was in the air: we all shared the knowledge of music’s rare ability to transcend circumstances.

Since its establishment, the WEDO built strong connections with several places. A close relationship with Spain, in particular with the regional government of Andalusia, brought the orchestra for long residencies and many concerts in an area, which was historically a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived together in peace and mutual respect. Berlin is the home of the Barenboim-Said Academy – a ground breaking educational program which was founded in the spirit of the WEDO. Berlin is also where many of the orchestra members live or study, and often where we meet to rehearse and perform. The last several summer tours began with a long residency in Buenos-Aires, the birthplace of Daniel Barenboim, and the capital of a country where he is much admired. This is where we met once again for the beginning of rehearsals and concert tour of summer 2016. As always with the Divan, there will be tightly-spaced chairs on stages, sincere attempts to tune an A in turns, passionate discussions, kisses… tears… and probably several unforgettable concerts.

Carnegie Hall 2013 © Manuel Vaca