Arts & Events

Daniel Barenboim Brings His West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to Berkeley

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Friday November 30, 2018 - 04:14:00 PM

In an outstanding career in which he has excelled as piano soloist, conductor of major orchestras, and award-winning recording artist, Daniel Barenboim has also founded several orchestras, including the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he co-founded in 1999 with Palestinian writer Edward Said. This orchestra was conceived by Barenboim and Said as a place where Israeli and Arab musicians from Palestine and other Middle Eastern countries could come together to work in harmony as music-making examples of hopes for a better, more peaceful future in the Middle East. Named after Goethe’s book of poems West-Eastern Divan, which itself was an effort to promote a united world culture, the orchestra founded by Barenboim and Said has become one of the world’s leading orchestras. Since 2015 talented young musicians from the Middle East have studied at the Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, which now includes a glorious new concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, designed by architect Frank Geary. 

On Saturday afternoon, November 10, Daniel Barenboim led his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a concert at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. Featured on the program were Richard Strauss’s tone poem Don Quixote and Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. Completed in 1887, Don Quixote was subtitled by Richard Strauss as “Fantastic Variations on a Theme of Knightly Character.” Throughout this work, Don Quixote is represented by a solo cellist, here robustly performed by Kim Soltani. The don’s squire, Sancho Panza, appears first in tenor tuba and bass clarinet, subsequently in the solo viola, here performed by Miriam Manasherov. This is an affectionate, often sardonic musical portrait of Don Quixote and his exploits, aided and abetted by Sancho Panza. There is wonderful writing throughout this work for cello; and young Kim Soltani, who was born in Bregenz, Austria, in 1992 of Persian parents, then joined at age 12 Ivan Monighetti’s class at the Basel Music Academy in Switzerland, showed why he has become a much-sought-after cellist who performs regularly with the world’s leading orchestras. Soltani exhibits a ravishing tone and superb technical artistry combined with a dazzling stage presence. In the lyrical dialogue between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza in the third variation, there was a lively and affectionate interplay between Kim Soltani’s cello and Miriam Manasherov’s viola. This work’s final death scene is a yearningly tender portrayal of Don Quixote’s lucid awareness of the vanity of his former mad obsessions with knightly chivalry and his peaceful acceptance of death. At the close of this work, the Zellerbach audience gave Kim Soltani and Daniel Barenboim a standing ovation. As an encore, Barenboim and Soltani offered an excerpt from The Swan, by Saint Saens.  

After intermission, Daniel Barenboim led the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor. Of Tchaikovsky’s six symphonies, the Fifth is the only one I admire unreservedly. Whereas the others often indulge in bombast, the Fifth seems to me of consistently high quality, unified by a theme embodying Fate that opens the work and recurs inescapably in each of the symphony’s four movements. This theme is made up of an 8-note figure, which appears first in the clarinets, then is worked out in a 37-measure slow introduction. Toward the end of the first movement, this 8-note figure returns in the bassoon. 

The second movement, an Andante cantabile, opens with a solo horn playing a romantic melody. Then a poignant melody follows in the oboe. A third theme appears in the solo clarinet before the full orchestra reiterates the 8-note Fate theme. The third movement is, instead of the usual scherzo, a waltz. This is a graceful, lilting waltz; yet toward the end of the movement the 8-note Fate theme returns ominously in the clarinets and bassoons. The same Fate theme opens and closes the work’s fourth and final movement. Transposed from minor to major, the Fate theme is now developed almost triumphantly, as if Fate itself had at last been accepted. (For Tchaikovsky, Fate seems to have been associated with the composer’s struggles with his own homosexuality.) Throughout the Fifth Symphony, conductor Daniel Barenboim energetically led his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in a splendid rendition of this work’s brilliantly coloristic orchestration. 

In a brief conversation on-stage with Matias Tarnopolsky after the concert, Daniel Barenboim gave a detailed history of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in which he singled out six years spent in Andalusia, Spain, which, he said, was one of the few places in the world where Jews and Muslims live together in peace and harmony. When asked when he would be able to list the names of the orchestra’s musicians in the programs, Barenboim wistfully pointed out that in the present situation this is not possible, for Israel is in a state of war with Lebanon and Syria, and it would be dangerous to publish the names of Lebanese and Syrian musicians. In the meantime, he said proudly, many of the musicians in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra concurrently hold posts in leading orchestras the world over, yet they return whenever possible to perform with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.