Conductor Barenboim turns 70

A foreword from Listen To The World

The Middle East conflict that flared up and caused civilian casualties on both sides in just recent days has ended with ceasefire. According to Al-jazeera, Israel and Hamas agree to truce after eight days of attacks in which 162 Palestinians and five Israelis were killed. The Egyptian foreign minister announced the ceasefire agreement hours before it took hold at 19:00 GMT on Wednesday.

But let’s set aside our typical opinion on the war; who started it, who is to blame, or whose side are we on. No, we don’t want to hear that. But let’s assume that most of us hate the war, especially the consequences it will bring. So let’s just focus on how to gain understandings and equality among conflicting people. And we believe that music can be such a way in bridging one.

Meet Daniel Barenboim, an Argentine-Israeli conductor and pianist, one of daring minorities who believe that music has the power to create more tolerance among people, even to those who are in conflict. Barenboim, who just turned 70 on November 5, brought together Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt musicians into harmony in his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. His view and belief in music’s roles and functions has led to an act of response upon unequality and disrespect among the citizens of the Middle East.

What Daniel Barenboim does since more than a decade ago up to his 70 years of age may not end the Middle East conflict in 5 or probably 10 years ahead. But with his persistence in passing the above values among the young Arabs and Israelis, let’s just hope that our children will live to see those days.


Conductor Barenboim turns 70

by Corina Kolbe
Published on November 14 2012 on

Argentine-Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim aims to create more tolerance in the Middle East conflict with the power of music. We take a closer look at this unusual artist as he turns 70 on November 15.

Daniel Barenboim has repeatedly and impressively shown how music can bring people together. As a musical prodigy, he left Argentina for Israel and Europe at a young age. In the decades since, he has enjoyed wide acclaim as a pianist and conductor. The multi-lingual citizen of the world has demonstrated the courage of his convictions as he creates projects that assemble people to play music together, while simultaneously dispelling prejudices and bridging gaps between groups of people. However, he has no ambitions to become a statesman, preferring instead to remain the artist he is. The human aspect, and not politics, is what interests him, he says.

Born in Buenos Aires in 1942, Barenboim’s grandparents – as Russian Jews – fled to South America at the beginning of the 20th century to escape the pogroms of the Russian Empire. In Argentina, Barenboim learned to play the piano at the age of five, and gave his first performance as a seven-year-old. En route to Israel, where his family emigrated in 1952, they stopped in Salzburg, where Barenboim performed a Bach recital as a young pianist. Two years later, legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler called him a “phenomenon.” Soon after, the nomadic life typical of an artist commenced for Barenboim as he gave his first performances in Vienna, Rome, Paris, London and New York. He also began recording albums.

A picture-book career

Following his conducting debut with the London Philharmonia Orchestra in 1967, he was soon conducting the world’s top orchestras. He became principal conductor of the Orchestre de Paris, conducted at the Bayreuth Festival beginning in 1981, took up the post as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and became General Music Director of the Berlin State Opera Unter den Linden in 1992. In addition, he became Music Director of Milan’s La Scala in 2011, having worked closely with the opera house in previous years.

Barenboim has not only concentrated on the works of Wagner, Beethoven, Schumann and Mahler, but also on contemporary music. At the Berlin State Opera, the conductor has led works by Pierre Boulez, Wolfgang Rihm, Isabelle Mundry, York Höller and the sole opera by American composer Elliott Carter, who recently passed away at the age of 103. Barenboim likewise regularly shifts from the conductor’s podium to the piano – such as in a recent concert series at La Scala in honor of his 70th birthday, during which he performed with his famous Italian colleague Claudio Abbado and others.

Argentinian-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
Argentinian-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra

Provoking fellow Israelis

Holding Argentine, Israeli and Palestinian citizenships, Barenboim experiences the Middle East conflict first-hand without taking a one-sided view. The musician created a scandal in 2004 when he was awarded Israel’s Wolf Prize. During his acceptance speech before the Knesset, he sharply criticized Israel’s course of action again Palestinians, and quoted from the 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence. Then Israeli President Moshe Katsav chastised Barenboim for offending Holocaust survivors by performing works by the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner.

Yet Barenboim is convinced that music can break down the barriers of hate. In 1999 – along with now deceased Palestinian intellectual Edward Said – he brought together young Israeli and Arab musicians for the first time for a workshop in Weimar, Germany. Taking its name from a collection of poetry by German Wolfgang Johann von Goethe, the “West-Eastern Divan” arose out of that, becoming a multi-national, Middle East orchestra that has gone on tour every summer since.

Members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra come from Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt. The musicians don’t just rehearse and perform together: they also discuss controversial topics, such as current political developments. “The most important thing is that people enter into a dialogue with one another,” Barenboim reflects in the documentary film ‘Knowledge is the Beginning,’ directed by Paul Smaczny and profiling the orchestra. “That doesn’t mean one has to adopt the other person’s stance. But in such a forum, the musicians have the opportunity to grow more tolerant.”

Overcoming boundaries

One of the highpoints in the existence of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra was a much-celebrated concert the musicians gave in Ramallah, in the West Bank, in 2005. With massive security measures in place, the orchestra was only able to enter the territory with Spanish diplomatic passports. Israeli musicians came to the Palestinian Territories for the first time, and their Arab colleagues had never before traveled in Israel. It became evident to everyone during that adventurous trip just how greatly the seemingly insurmountable borders had prevented people from learning about those on the “other side.” As Barenboim explains, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra will have achieved its true dimensions once it has performed in all of the native countries of its members.

In ‘Knowledge is the Beginning,’ an Israeli reporter asks Barenboim if musical education could stop a Palestinian child from throwing stones at Israelis. He said he didn’t think so, but with music, he could give these young people something they would never want to live without. “And when kids go to violin or cello lessons three or four times a week, they don’t have time to ponder radical ideas.”

Involved in society

The Berlin-based Daniel Barenboim Foundation not only supports the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, but also numerous music and educational projects in the Middle East. Together with the Barenboim-Said Musical Center in Ramallah, it supports young musicians of various ages in Israel and in the West Bank. The Edward W. Said Music Kindergarden opened its doors in Ramallah in 2004.

Barenboim also founded a music kindergarten in Berlin in 2005, where members of his Staatskapelle – the orchestra of the Berlin State Opera – regularly stop by with their instruments. Barenboim’s vision of education by way of music, which can promote cooperation within society, evidently has a wide appeal: on his 70th birthday on November 15, he will perform with the Staatskapelle Berlin under the baton of his long-time friend Zubin Mehta in a benefit concert for his Berlin Music Kindergarden.