Daniel Barenboim: Sound, Thought & Activism

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Daniel Barenboim, the pianist and conductor, is by now a sort of meta-musician.

Like Yo-Yo Ma of the Silk Road Project, or Dizzy Gillespie with his United Nations Orchestra, or Leonard Bernstein leaping Cold War boundaries and the musical divides between Broadway, Hollywood and the New York Philharmonic, Barenboim — born in Buenos Aires of Russian Jewish parents, and an Israeli since his early teens — has made himself an icon of musical implications for a world-wide audience that hungers for a great deal more than performances.

Like Bernstein years ago, also Igor Stravinsky and John Cage as well, Barenboim was invited to give the Norton Lectures at Harvard this fall. Delivering from the keyboard and the microphone, Barenboim made his theme “Sound and Thought.” And mid-series, he generously sat with producer David Miller and me for some uncharted gab.

As we began I was book-ending this session with the last conversation I had in 2000 with Edward Said, the Palestinian “militant intellectual” and in his last years Barenboim’s bosom friend and political co-conspirator. Barenboim, it turned out, was as eager to talk about his soul-mate Said as Said had been to talk about Barenboim and their brilliant young Israeli-Arab orchestra. The most intimate, most consequential friendship in both of their lives began by chance in a hotel lobby, in London as I remember. They fell instantly into a rapturous common purpose. As Said recalled to me:

We both have a tremendous interest in the Middle East as a place of possibility–not because there are these separations but because there are these mixtures, you know. Neither of us live there. Daniel lives in Berlin and Chicago, and I live in New York, but the Middle East is important just as a place to go back to. And it’s a place that’s interesting to us because of the incredible variety of lives there and cultures that it’s possible to excavate. And I know from his point of view the discovery going into an Arab home, for example, which he did for the first time when we went to one in Ramallah a couple of years ago was for him a major adventure because, he said, in his own background growing up as a young musician in Israel in the ’50s he had no knowledge of what the Arabs were like, although they were living next door. And one of the things he was interested in doing, for example, is learning Arabic. And actually he made an announcement at a concert which he gave in Jerusalem, which I attended, a recital in which he said he was outraged that the program was in English and Hebrew but not in Arabic. So that notion of dissipating boundaries that are usually, in the end, quite mechanical and not worth maintaining is very much a part of this.

Edward Said, “A Last Conversation… Part 2”, Christopher Lydon Interviews: October 8, 2003

A brilliant movie version of what this Barenboim-Said friendship accomplished in the Ramallah Concert of August, 2005 is available now on DVD. “So exciting it is hard not to cry,” one of the young orchestra players said in a wild understatement. I defy anyone watching Paul Smaczny’s film not to shudder and bawl at the beauty not just of these young players but of the Said-Barenboim vision… of what Mozart, Beethoven and Elgar are still saying to our nuttily contentious species.

Our conversation with Daniel Barenboim won’t make you weep, but let’s hope there’s a goose-bump or two in the music and in this wondrously accomplished, brave and purposeful man. Happy Thanksgiving!

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