Daniel Barenboim opens Berlin music academy for Middle East students

Musician and conductor says school, which will take in 90 new talents from the region each year, is ‘attempt at creating peace through music’

by Kate Connolly, Berlin, Germany, The Guardian, December 8, 2016

Daniel Barenboim has called it an “experiment in utopia”, a project that marks the culmination of the leading musician and conductor’s life’s work in bringing together musicians from the Middle East.

The Barenboim-Said Academy, which opened on Thursday evening in Berlin, will offer 90 talented students from the Middle East the chance to study classical music under the maestro himself as well as a raft of other top musicians and composers.

Housed in the former sets and props depot of Berlin’s Staatsoper (state opera), the academy – which is being largely funded by the German government, including students’ tuition fees and accommodation – will aim to nurture new recruits for 74-year-old Barenboim’s acclaimed West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which for the past 17 years has brought together musicians from across the region and is now considered world class.

Barenboim, the artistic director of the Staatsoper next door, said that just as with the orchestra, the academy was inspired by conversations he had had with his friend, the late American-Palestinian professor of literature Edward Said.

“The academy is an attempt at creating peace through the means of music,” said Barenboim, who holds Argentinian, Israeli and Palestinian citizenships. “But it is not a political project, it’s a humanistic project.

“Here we hope the young musicians will find a protected place far from the everyday of war and crisis. The students should not only learn to become professional musicians but also to become ambassadors of peace.”

Barenboim and Said’s joint vision had been for the academy to be built in the Middle East. “It should have been founded in Tel Aviv, Damascus or Ramallah. But because we cannot have it in those places, here at least the musicians can meet in a place that evens out the differences, at eye level.”

For now the aim is to give the students a chance to develop their musical skills and encourage dialogue between them. The academy’s unique four-year bachelor of music programme offers accredited degrees in all orchestral instruments, piano, conducting and composition. As well as courses in ear training, music history and physiotherapy (for repetitive strain injuries typically suffered by musicians), a quarter of the degree involves a humanities component, comprising courses in philosophy, ethics, history and literature.

The academy has also reached out to musicians who arrived in Germany from Syria as refugees, with five enrolled in a preparatory scheme where exceptional students can be promoted to the degree programme.

Next to the academy is its €35.1m (£29.6m) concert hall – designed by the American architect Frank Gehry and the Japanese acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, both of whom waived their fees for the project. Due to be inaugurated in March 2017, it has been named after the late composer and conductor Pierre Boulez.

Gehry said during a recent visit to Berlin that he had become involved in the project after meeting Barenboim, and out of a conviction that the arts offered “an understanding of humanity that transcends all rhetoric”. He recalled showing a model of the concert hall to Boulez two months before he died. “It became a very important thing for him at the end of his life,” Gehry said.

Gehry’s ellipsis-shaped hall appears to be suspended in mid-air, with a stage made of Canadian cedar, whose vibrations have been compared to the sounds of a Stradivarius and which are meant to enhance the musical experience. A sense of intimacy has been created by ensuring that no audience member is more than 14 metres away from the conductor.

As the academy’s foyer buzzed on Thursday afternoon with the sound of musicians tuning up and conversing in a mix of languages – from German to Arabic and Urdu to Farsi – several of the students reflected on what being a part of the school, which started teaching last year, meant to them.

Yamen Saadi, a 19-year-old violinist from Nazareth who started his course in October, said he first met Barenboim when he was 10, when he told him it was his dream to join the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.

“Here I can express my thoughts and I have started to have Israeli friends,” he said. “What I’ve learned so far is to play music better, how to think better and how to become an all-round better musician, I have improved my ability to analyse.”

Viola player Sadra Fayyaz, 24, from Tehran, said he was relieved that the focus was on the learning and not the politics. He said: “We don’t discuss the political situation. We’re beyond that. Maybe do we so at home, but in the school it’s all about learning.”

Miri Saadon, 29, a clarinettist from Israel who completed the pilot scheme, said she had learned the importance of putting the music into context. “It’s crucial for all of us I think, to be able to consider not only the music we play but to look at it in a broader way, at life in general,” she said. “Here our understanding about everything becomes a lot deeper.”

The academy’s location just off Bebelplatz – the site of the 1933 book burning – underscores the sense of historical responsibility felt by the Berlin government, which added to the federal government’s extensive support by giving a grant towards the academy’s maintenance as well as gifting it the 99-year-lease of the building in which it is housed.

Barenboim said: “As a Jew, I would not be able to live in Berlin if I did not have the feeling that the German people had come to terms with their past. As for the government’s generosity towards the school, I have to say I lived for 15 years in London where none of the politicians had much interest in the musical life. In Germany, Mrs Merkel … and her finance minister [Wolfgang Schäuble], and other top politicians, regularly come to classical concerts. And we are grateful that they clearly saw this academy as fitting in with their wider idea of what culture means.”