In the summer of 2003, The South Bank Show gained exclusive access to one of the most controversial and unique orchestras in the world.
The West-Eastern Divan orchestra, conducted by Daniel Barenhoim.
In the face of political and ideological divides between their respective countries, five years ago DANIEL BARENBOIM, an Argentinean Jew and Israel’s most famous conductor and pianist, along with Christian Palestinian philosopher EDWARD SAID, put together the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
Symbolically named after Goethe’s book of poems called West-Östlicher Divan, a synthesis of Islamic and European poetry published as the Napoleonic Wars drew to a close, the Orchestra comprises an equal number of young Israeli and Arab musicians aged between 13 and 26.
Some had never performed in any kind of ensemble before or even heard an orchestra live. Each summer, they gather on neutral soil to rehearse and perform, live and talk together before returning to their communities.
Says Barenboim: ‘If I can be proud about one thing, it is that when people come to the concerts they are flabbergasted at the idea and I can just see them looking at the stage to see who is Egyptian, who is Israeli and so on.
They marvel at that because they read about suicide in Israel or the actions of the Israeli military on the West Bank and then all of a sudden all these people [from the Middle East] are sitting together. That’s the first shock.’
This year The South Bank Show filmed Barenboim and his orchestra during one of the most violent and volatile periods of Middle Eastern history.
They were rehearsing at a former catholic seminary near Seville in preparation for The Prom at The Royal Albert Hall.
Seville, the setting chosen by Barenboim, is significant because of its history of Middle Eastern influences.
For several centuries, Jews and Arabs lived peacefully in this part of the world creating the culture of Andalucia as we know it today.
‘Maybe now it is for Andalucia to give back to them [the Middle East] what they gave to Andalucia,’ says Barenboim.
In his last television appearance before his death in September of this year, Edward Said discusses the development of the orchestra with Barenboim, his great friend and collaborator.
Said’s moral authority in the Arab world was absolutely essential in turning the idea into a reality and his dedication and huge contribution to the annual musical workshops allowed the project to flourish.
Both he and Barenboim see the orchestra and what it represents as a metaphor for what is possible in the Middle East. This film is dedicated to his memory.
‘It’s like a stone you throw in a pond’, says Said. ‘I mean the ripple effect has been extraordinary.’
The programme also features extracts from the orchestra’s Prom in the summer, their biggest, most successful concert to date which was specially filmed for this South Bank Show.