Changing man

Nine years after founding the boundary-breaking West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim tells

Daniel Barenboim is waiting for an urgent message. "We have a problem," he says, glancing at the mobile phone lying beside him on an apple-green chaise longue in his office at La Scala opera house in Milan. "Next week we play our first concert of the year, and it's difficult to get some of the musicians there."

The conductor's problem goes beyond the logistical difficulties presented by any orchestral tour. Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is made up of roughly a hundred young musicians from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon. At a more mundane level than any talk of peace and reconciliation, this fact is extraordinary: the Divan exists in defiance of the world's most perverse and convoluted border controls. With very few exceptions, Israeli passport-holders may not enter the Palestinian territories, and vice versa; Lebanese and Syrians may not travel to Israel or the Palestinian territories; citizens of either, or even those who have passed through, are denied entry to Lebanon and Syria. Thanks to an "ice-cold" peace agreement, Israelis and Jordanians may in theory visit each other's countries, but Palestinians in the West Bank need Israeli military permission to reach Jordan by way of the Allenby Bridge border crossing - and permission is often withheld or severely delayed.

Simply gathering the members of the Divan for a rehearsal is a challenge, let alone attempting an international tour. The orchestra's summer concerts - including an imminent appearance in the Proms season at the Royal Albert Hall - are a triumph of diplomatic wheeler-dealing.

Barenboim is uniquely qualified to lead this eccentric orchestra. In January this year, he accepted a Palestinian passport to add to the Israeli, Spanish and Argentinian documents he already had, making him the only person in the world to hold both Palestinian and Israeli nationalities. He has repeatedly spoken out against the Israeli occupation of Palestine, addressed the Knesset on "the intolerable gap between the idea and the realities of Israel", and been called "a real Jew-hater, a real anti-Semite" by an Israeli minister. He is famous for conducting Wagner - unofficially banned in Israel because of the composer's violent anti-Semitism and his music's association with Nazism - in Jerusalem, and for refusing an interview to a uniformed journalist from Israeli army radio. "I don't deal with governments, though," he insists, unconvincingly. "I am really not a political person - people always smile when I say this, but I'm not."

Over the nine years of the orchestra's life, he has had plenty of opportunities to refine his diplomatic techniques. The Divan began in 1999 when Barenboim and his "best friend", the Palestinian writer and critic Edward Said, who died in 2003, set up a music workshop in the German town of Weimar. It was a risky idea. "For most of the Arab musicians, it was the first time they had spoken to an Israeli, and vice versa," remembers Barenboim. "Of course, they found it difficult. But this project has never been about pretending we are all friends. We do not want to cover up the differences between people. It's simply about hearing the narrative of the other side - which most of them had never done - and learning to have respect for it."

In that first year, the friends had no idea the workshop would become an orchestra. "I thought it might be a one-off, with 12 or 15 players," remembers Barenboim. "But there were so many applications, and it was so fantastic, that we realised it could not be a one-time affair." It was Said who named the orchestra, after Goethe's collection of verse inspired by the 14th-century Persian mystical poet Hafiz.

"What did Edward Said contribute to the orchestra? Everything," says Barenboim. "He made the connection between music and culture, between music and thought. He was a great educator, and he educated people to think." Since Said's death, his widow, Mariam, has continued his work with the orchestra and frequently speaks at concerts.

Since those early days, the Divan has played across Europe, in the United States, South America, Turkey and Morocco. "At first, musically, it was very hard for me," says Barenboim. "Some of the players had never been in an orchestra before; others were professional standard. But they helped the beginners, and gradually we all learned how to play together."

In 2002, with the Spanish government's support, the Divan found a home in Seville. When Barenboim wanted to take the orchestra to the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2005 - a terrifying, painful, or simply impossible idea for many of his musicians - Spain issued them all with temporary diplomatic passports to ease their way through Israeli checkpoints. Unbelievably, it worked (though the Israeli authorities insisted the Israeli musicians remain locked inside the concert hall at all times) and the orchestra played Beethoven and Mozart to a Palestinian audience.

Despite the international success, the Divan is still vulnerable to regional turmoil. Its 2006 rehearsal and concert season took place while Israel was at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Barenboim winces at the memory. "Some of the Syrians and Lebanese couldn't, or wouldn't, come - and even for those who did, that summer was so difficult."

The orchestra survived that summer, and its routine is now well established. Annual auditions are conducted in Beirut, Damascus, Amman, Cairo, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem by musicians from Barenboim's other orchestra, the Berlin Staatskapelle, who also help with training the young musicians. The Divan then gathers for three weeks each summer to rehearse, followed by another three weeks of touring: this year, including a performance in Amman, their first in a Middle Eastern Arab country.

"It is a very busy schedule," admits Barenboim. He swings his feet up on to the chaise longue and sighs. Barenboim is dapper in a pale, crumpled suit and, at 65, still boyish-looking - he is famous for his energy - but his face is white with exhaustion. While the Divan gathers for rehearsals in Spain, he is in Milan alternating performances of Beethoven's complete piano sonatas with conducting Prokofiev's opera The Gambler. At the same time, he is music director and conductor-for-life of the Berlin Staats kapelle, and is also having to deny a plausible rumour that he may take up the music directorship of the New York Philharmonic in 2009.

It is an elite life, as the trappings of his rooms at La Scala - the chaise longue, a fresh Havana cigar on a white plate, occasional outbursts in Italian, assistants meekly addressing him as "Maestro" - confirm. Barenboim has been a celebrity for almost as long as he can remember. Born in 1942 in Buenos Aires to a Russian Ashkenazi Jewish family, he took up the piano under the instruction of his father, Enrique, at age five. At seven, he gave his first concert; two years later, a recognised child prodigy, he began the life of international travel and performing that he has pursued ever since. In 1952, the family moved to Israel - where David Ben-Gurion tried unsuccessfully to persuade them to adopt the surname Agassi, the Hebrew word for "pear", instead of the Yiddish Barenboim (from Birnbaum, or "pear tree"). Barenboim learned Hebrew and threw himself into life in the young state.

"In those early times, it was exciting to be there," he says. "Israel was in the process of transforming itself from a minority into a nation, where there were not only Jewish artists and Jewish bankers, but Jewish farmers, Jewish thieves, Jewish prostitutes - everything you have in other countries. After 1967, when Israel came out of the Six Day War in control of another minority, everything changed."

Meanwhile, in London, Barenboim had met the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, whom he married at the Western Wall in Jerusalem just after the war, in June 1967. After her death from multiple sclerosis in 1987, he married the Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova, with whom he already had two sons. He now lives in Berlin with Bashkirova and their grown-up sons, but still travels constantly. His roaming existence is the exact opposite of life for the tightly confined young musicians of the Divan. "It is very different," he says. "The Jerusalem I dream about still feels like home." He pulls a wry face. "But then Jerusalem is open to all kinds of interpretations."

Mention of the city energises him into an eloquent, forceful analysis of its problems. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been treated as a political conflict, and it's not," he says. "A political conflict is a conflict about territory or borders, about water, about oil, about gas, and so on. But this is a human conflict between two people who are convinced they have a right to the same small piece of land. As we've seen, there is no military or diplomatic solution, only a human solution, based on our common interests, economic, scientific and cultural. We have to have the courage to make a Palestinian state and not put a wall around it - instead, to open the borders."

Barenboim believes in music as a powerful catalyst for change: his new book, Everything Is Connected (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), argues that music can illuminate the path to peace in the Middle East. And the Divan has already inspired two of its musicians to lead their own initiatives. In Ramallah, the viola player Ramzi Aburedwan runs al-Kamandjâti ("the violinist"), a project teaching classical music to Palestinian children. In Nazareth, at the Barenboim-Said Foundation School, the violinist Nabeel Abboud Ashkar teaches music to Palestinian children living in Israel. "These are exceptional projects," says Barenboim. He hopes there will be more.

In the meantime, he has another goal for the orchestra itself. "My ambition for the Divan is to play in all the countries that are represented in it. This is not possible at the moment, but we all hope it will be."

Finally, his phone flashes with the message he has been waiting for: his musicians will be allowed to travel. "It will all work," says Barenboim. "I hope it will all work."

Daniel Barenboim conducts the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in the Proms at the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, on 14 August. For more details visit:

Daniel Barenboim: the CV

  • 1942 Born in Argentina to parents of Jewish and Russian descent. He starts piano lessons at age five and at seven holds his first concert, in Buenos Aires
  • 1952 Makes his international debut as a pianist in Vienna. In subsequent years tours Paris, Rome and New York. He makes his first gramophone recording in 1954 and goes on to record complete cycles of Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms
  • 1962 Starts conducting professionally. He goes on to lead the English Chamber Orchestra (1965-75) and the Orchestre de Paris (1975-89)
  • 1967

    Marries the British cellist Jacqueline du Pré in Jerusalem. The marriage lasts until her death from multiple sclerosis in 1987. In 1988 he marries the Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova

  • 1999 Co-founds West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
  • 2001 Sparks controversy by conducting work by Richard Wagner, an anti-Semite idolised by the Nazis, at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem
  • 2007 Designated a Messenger of Peace by the United Nations

This article first appeared in the 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games