The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at the Salzburg Festival September 2007

The musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra want to find out through discussion and dialogue with world leaders what changes must take place in society for a solution to be found, what their visions are for the future of the region, and how trust can be built between the two sides of the conflict.

The summer of 2007 has been an extraordinary one for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble that began in 1999 as an experiment whose continuation, let alone wild success, could never have been foreseen at that time. So much has been written and said about the orchestra since its founding that it seems unnecessary to recapitulate its entire history. Suffice it to say that it has been a source of great joy to me to see these young Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs from Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon-some of whom have been attending the summer sessions of the orchestra since the first one in 1999-develop musically, socially, emotionally, and intellectually over the years.

In mid-July the members of the West-Eastern Divan along with the teachers (mainly from the Staatskapelle Berlin) who coach the different instrument groups in the orchestra, arrived in Salzburg. Ordinarily the orchestra is at home in Pilas, about 20 kilometres outside of Seville, Spain, which is for many historical and cultural reasons an ideal location for the workshop; after all, it was in Andalusia that Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in relative harmony for many centuries. The government of Andalusia has also been generously supporting the orchestra since 2002 for the very reason-as Manuel Chaves, president of the region, put it-that they, the people of Andalusia, would like to give something back to the peoples that enriched their cultural history so deeply and for such a long time. The invitation to the orchestra to play a major role in the Salzburg Festival this year, however, was an opportunity that we could not refuse. Not only did the orchestra perform in the Festspielhaus as part of the regular festival, it was also featured in a special “Day with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra”-a long day of chamber music with renowned guest artists-and was the centrepiece of numerous symposia, discussions, and workshops with audience participation.

When the workshop began in 1999 there were many participants who had never even heard a symphony orchestra perform live before. This summer in Salzburg, not only did they have the opportunity to listen to rehearsals and performances of the Vienna Philharmonic-including the new production of Eugene Onegin that I conducted-but their own rehearsals and performances were sometimes attended by members of the Vienna Philharmonic. In addition to playing the Beethoven Leonore Overture no. 3 and the Tchaikowsky 6th Symphony, we played the Schönberg Variations this year, which was a great but ultimately extremely rewarding challenge for the young musicians. Their understanding and enthusiasm for the Schönberg was no less than for any of the other great works we have performed; in fact, in their late-night sessions of playing Middle Eastern music (without my supervision), the theme of the Schönberg Variations have been heard more than once being subjected to entirely different transformations and improvisations! In other words, they have fully digested and incorporated his musical language.

I am enormously grateful to the guest artists who participated in the “Day with the West-Eastern Divan” this year; some were returning guests and others came for the first time, but all of them performed without demanding a fee out of their dedication to the project. Waltraud Meier, who sang several performances of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with us last year, returned to sing Wagner and Schumann songs with Saleem Abboud-Ashkar, a Palestinian pianist from Nazareth; Dorothea Röschmann sang Mendelssohn songs with Kareem Said, a Palestinian pianist from Jordan; and Thomas Hampson sang Strauss and Wolf songs with Yael Kareth, an Israeli pianist. This was obviously a tremendous experience for the young pianists, some of whom had never accompanied a singer at all before. In addition, Patrice Chéreau donated his services in triple form: as narrator, devil, and soldier of Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat.

Several politicians from the Middle East and Europe joined us for a brief but intensive period of discussions. It gives me great satisfaction to witness the sensitivity, intelligence and maturity with which the members of the orchestra have learned to approach discussions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even when uncomfortable and potentially explosive topics were breached, there was no loss of self-discipline as was understandably the case in the early years of the project. These days, the musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra want to find out through discussion and dialogue with world leaders what changes must take place in society for a solution to be found, what their visions are for the future of the region, and how trust can be built between the two sides of the conflict.

In the last days of our residence in the Salzburg Festival, we gave three workshops entitled “the School of the Ear.” The first two workshops corresponded with the first two chapters of a book I have been writing that will be published later this year by Feltrinelli of Italy. The first workshop, entitled ‘Sound and Thought’ dealt with the physical properties of sound, which I was able to demonstrate with the help of the entire orchestra, and the second, entitled ‘Listening and Hearing’ dealt with the way we listen to and perceive sound, and how and when sound becomes music. The second half of this workshop was in the form of a conducting masterclass I gave with the very talented young conductor Robin Ticciati, who had already conducted his own concert at the Salzburg Festival. The third workshop, led by Pierre Boulez, called ‘Sound and Structure,’ was followed by a musical discussion between the two of us.

We are all grateful to the Salzburg Festival not only for inviting us but for giving us a platform on which the orchestra could display its many facets-musical, humanitarian, and intellectual-participating not just as a guest at one of the world’s most important festivals but being allowed to contribute creatively to its program.