An Angeleno assesses The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra
By Tony Litwinko
Back in 1999, two iconoclasts, one Arab, the other Israeli, devised a new, unorthodox orchestra and called it the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, after a Goethe poetry book inspired by the Persian Sufi poet, Hafez. The “Divan” as envisioned by author-pianist Edward Said (Orientalism) and pianist-conductor Daniel Barenboim, would invite talented Palestinian, Israeli and other musicians from the Middle East to perform together, in spite of obvious political, religious and physical barriers.
What was originally intended to be a summer workshop is now nearing its 20th year, and recently competed a U.S. tour, which included their Los Angeles premiere at downtown’s Walt Disney Concert Hall.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra or WEDO performed a slightly shortened version of Strauss’s Don Quixote tone poem and then after intermission Tchaikovsky’s Symphony N. 5.
I don’t think I have ever seen musicians play with such intensity and fervor, and the sound was electrifying. Clearly they were exhausted by evening’s end, upon which I could not help but walk down to the rail above the orchestra and shout to them “shukran!” and “toda raba!” which provoked a few smiles and a few double-takes. It was a great night.
As a conductor, Barenboim was astounding. Having just turned 75, he made that dangerous big step off the conductor’s podium with a bit of difficulty, but did the directing entirely out of his head—no score in front of him at all and you could see the audience marveling all through. That is some memory. The other day, I cranked up my Spotify program and listened to Leonard Bernstein conduct the Berlin Philharmonic performing the Strauss tone poem, and even at high volume on my speakers it was tame compared to the passion that Barenboim got out of the WEDO musicians.
I found in Variation III “Dialogue between knight and squire” beautiful conversation between cello soloist Kian Soltani and the lead violist, Miriam Manasherov. They truly carried on a dialogue with the small tuba joining in. As well, you had Variation VII, “The Ride Through the Air” producing superb sound from the percussionists and the strings, while Variation VII, “The Unhappy Voyage in the Enchanted Boat” offered wonderful rhythmical variations. And for the Finale, “Coming to his Senses Again—Death of Don Quixote,” the cellist was magnificent and the dying line acute.
A few times Barenboim would bend down and cup his left hand as if he were saying “dig deep, now, guys and gals” and then lift his hand up, up—especially during the Tchaikovsky—and they would respond with intensity or volume. Indeed, Barenboim was like a master sound technician on the volume control—one slight gesture to the bassists and they swelled!
In Andante Cantabile the French horn soloist offered moving timbre and sensuous melody. The ensemble from the horns and woodwinds was also wonderful, especially the bassoon and the oboe.
And what a finale: in Andante Maestoso every musician was intense, the violins on each side of the orchestra, everyone passionate as if performing a solo, yet in synch.
It was for me and the rest of the audience, I think, a joyous evening. We kept clapping and clapping and after the second walkout the violins and bass players (right below us) started shifting their scores and showed a third title sheet and so we at least knew they would do an encore. And it was Wagner, Prelude to the Meister Singer, again with that passion and intensity and fun.
Tony Litwinko is a writer and activist in Los Angeles.