By Lawrence B. Johnson
CHICAGO – The night before the midterm elections, in a nation and world so grievously afflicted by the cultural divisions of “us” versus “them,” it was beyond musically gratifying to witness the concert – indeed, the communion – of conductor Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on Nov. 5 at Orchestra Hall.
The commonality of shared music-making is the raison d’être of this fine ensemble, whose artistic sophistication belies its comparatively youthful aspect. Barenboim and the late Palestinian literary scholar Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 as a crucible for Israeli and Arab musicians to work and think and create together without, as Barenboim once put it, resorting to knives.
The orchestra’s intriguing name derives from Goethe’s collection of poems titled West-Eastern Divan, itself a paean to the concept of cultural exchange and understanding across regions of the world. Today, the ensemble, based in Seville, includes musicians from throughout the Arab world as well as Israel and Iran, a non-Arab Muslim country at odds with Israel.
With its Chicago concert, the orchestra kicked off a U.S. tour that continued at the Kennedy Center on Nov. 7, then would extend to Carnegie Hall on Nov. 8, Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley, Cal., on Nov. 10, and Disney Hall in Los Angeles on Nov. 11.
It was clear in the Nov. 5 concert, a pairing of Strauss’ Don Quixote and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, that Barenboim’s affection for his young troupe remains undiminished after nearly 20 years and that his pedagogy has produced an orchestra of technical elegance to match its expressive sensibilities.
Emblematic of Barenboim’s mission, his spotlighted cellist in Don Quixote, Kian Soltani, though born in Bregenz, Austria, is a scion of Iranian musicians, and the featured violist, Miriam Manasherov, the orchestra’s principal, is Israeli. They made a charming as well as virtuosic pair.
It is impossible to talk about the accomplishment of this remarkable orchestra without speaking first of Barenboim’s mastery as a conductor and his musicianship generally. I’ve watched him on the podium back to his youthful days as guest conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, in the era of Georg Solti’s directorship and well before Barenboim himself took the CSO’s reins. Barenboim is a musical shaper with a poet’s sensibility and a dramatist’s ear for structure. And those were the very qualities that gave line and depth to this young orchestra’s tone-painting of Don Quixote.
The playing was as witty and off-hand as it was centered and assured. Soltani’s personable cello led the way with a performance by turns languid and impetuous, touched now by grandiosity and now by lyric pathos. From her seat as principal viola, Manasherov provided just the musically confident, emotionally fraught foil needed as Sancho Panza.
Tchaikovsky’s majestic Symphony No. 5 in E minor put the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra on quite different ground. If anything, this splendorous symphony with its arching lines, richly hued tapestries, and insistent declamation drew an even more impressive performance from Barenboim and company. Supple winds and burnished strings imbued the opening movement with equal parts of power and finesse, then turned the ensuing Andante into a display of surging drama, heightened by smartly focused trumpets and horns.
Here, moreover, was Barenboim the sure-handed builder, almost imperceptibly increasing our awareness of the music’s emotional superstructure until, there it was, fully formed and dazzling. This Tchaikovsky took me back several decades to a time when I heard the pianist-turned-conductor manage exactly the same dramatic legerdemain in Bruckner’s Seventh with the Chicago Symphony.
Brahms may have been the first notable critic to complain about the “bombast” that Tchaikovsky contrived as the finale to this Fifth Symphony. To which I say, of course it’s calculated, obvious, and loud, but it’s such delicious bombast. When everything comes to a full stop, followed by a fat moment of silence, and that striding peroration begins – ah, I’m there. So were Barenboim and his gamely engaged orchestra. Count the audience in, too.
After whooping applause that went on for several minutes, the beaming maestro led the band in an encore of the “Nimrod” variation from Elgar’s Enigma. It was a fulsome, swelling sound that neatly summed up the magnificence of Barenboim’s vision.
Lawrence B. Johnson, editor of the performing arts web magazine Chicago On the Aisle, was for many years music critic for The Detroit News and has written for The New York Times as well as several music magazines.