Saturday, January 19, 2013

Knowledge is the Beginning – A documentary of Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Knowledge is the Beginning, the stirring, Emmy-award winning documentary by Paul Smaczny released in 2005 for Euro Arts Music, takes an in-depth look at the visionary joint undertaking of two creative forces: Palestinian Edward Said and Israeli Daniel Barenboim, who succeeded in setting an extraordinary example illustrating the power of music over politics.( free viewing at Symphony Space on Sunday 27th 5.30 PM with following Q+A).
The film records the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s inauguration in 1999 in Weimar, whose aim was to bring together young musicians from Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Egypt, as well as international guest artists and educators, in the face of ongoing political adversity in the Middle East. After the German reunification, Weimar was looking to bring back its former glorious musical past, and Barenboim was attempting of making a true difference with his music outreach project. The orchestra seemed to be a way to meet both parties’ goals.
The transcendence of humanity in the dialogues between the young musicians as they learn and perform together overcomes the existing misgivings and prejudices they have to face and conquer as individuals. Gestures like sharing a music stand, respecting each other’s musical abilities, and simply getting to know each other on a personal level, are small, but important building blocks. Barenboim offers a logical explanation for this result: “Those hours spent with music are hours spent less with extremist ideas.” Getting to know about each other seems indeed a promising beginning to a real shift in perspective. Knowledge is the Beginning strikes a balance between delving into the inner political conflicts at play, and portraying the actual music making throughout the rehearsals and performances that Smaczny covers.
Music programs that also reach out to the Arab population in Israel have existed for many years, supported by special concert tours in areas that are predominantly Arabic, and sponsored by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. None of these efforts, however, have had quite the impact and resonance that the West-Eastern Divan has; the orchestra offers its musicians a unique new reality that is hard to resist in its straightforwardness. Without any particular political ambitions, yet with insistently daring political incorrectness, the leadership of both sides succeeded in creating a uniquely safe environment within the West-Eastern Divan, which promotes unity and mutual understanding within its group of musicians. As the film effectively conveys, Barenboim’s attention to detail and exceptional ability to bring out the best in his musicians is inspirational, and speaks to his commitment to taking this collaborative project to the next level.
The film picks up on Barenboim’s willingness to access any possible platform to make a statement about his case; even the podium given to him at the occasion of his acceptance speech of the Wolf Prize for the Arts, he received at Israel’s Knesset. Barenboim’s critical view of Israeli policy is no secret, and between the musicians and interviewees, the Palestinian point of view is well represented in the film. What the movie lacks perhaps – and perhaps is missed within Barenboim’s own perception as well, is an equal understanding of the Israeli state of mind. In the film, the Israeli point of view of the conflict is supported and explained only explicitly by one young musician, who expresses her frustration and helplessness in the face of the Palestinian terror attacks that she faces on an everyday basis.
As the movie describes, travel through Israel’s borders has become burdensome for Palestinians, yet until today, Palestinian leadership groups have not even accepted Israel’s existence. Because of these turbulent circumstances, the orchestra-members needed to obtain special diplomatic passports to travel for their performances, and the groups had to split their traveling routes: Non-Arabs traveled via Israel while Arabs traveled via Arab countries. In light of all these hindrances, the orchestra’s unique first performance, which took place in 2005 in Ramallah, a Palestinian town in the West Bank about 6 miles outside of Jerusalem, was a remarkable conquest, and a symbolic achievement of what is possible under the brilliant conductor’s rules of engagement.
Barenboim was named UN Messenger of peace for his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which continues to perform internationally.
In memoriam of Edward Said, who passed away in 2003, Barenboim recently announced plans to form the Barenboim-Said Academy in 2015, which will continue the spirit of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra within a year-round institution for young musicians from the Middle East. Barenboim plans to build his and Said’s namesake institution in Berlin, adjacent to the Staatsoper. The structure will feature a new concert hall, designed by Frank Gehry.

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