Proms 38 and 39: West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Barenboim - Royal Albert Hall, 14 August 2008
Haydn Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major, for oboe, bassoon, violin, cello
Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra, Op.31
Brahms Symphony No.4
Encore: Wagner Prelude, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Pierre Boulez Mémoriale (... explosante-fixe ... Originel)
Stravinsky L'histoire du soldat
The surgical-gloved bag checks at the door and the deliberate omission of orchestra members' names from the programme were jolting reminders that for there's more to this mixed Arab-Israeli orchestra than music.
It is I suppose inevitable that the incredible feat of simply creating and sustaining a cross-divide orchestra tends to overshadow the purely musical successes. But gradually, Barenboim has shaped this assortment of musicians - professional and amateur, experienced and novice, young and even younger - into an outstanding orchestra. The fact that tonight's brass section included a few ringers from the Simon Bolivar Orchestra doesn't diminish that achievement.
What is really special about this orchestra is not just that Israeli and Arab sit side-by-side, but that it mixes such a wide range of experience. Tonight one of the Israelis was concertmaster of the Berliner Philharmoniker, Guy Braunstein, and sharing his stand was a ten year old Palestinian prodigy.
When leader Michael Barenboim bust a string in the Brahms, Guy Braunstein, sitting back in the third row, was the one who proffered a violin swap. Playing the last movement on three strings, using every spare moment to unpick the broken string so he could swiftly replace it with the spare in his pocket before the encore, he gave his junior partner a lesson in crisis management he won't forget for a while, on top of all the musical stuff. Where else could a ten year old, however talented, get that sort of training?
And why don't we have something similar in Britain? Bringing together warring nations may be beyond the scope of British orchestras, but putting together a group from mixed musical backgrounds could rejuvenate the approach of the professionals as well as giving the youngsters the sort of practical training they could never receive from any youth orchestra, however good.
They gave Haydn's Sinfonia Concertante an elegant, hard-edged workout, if rather short on charm. Barenboim, with the slightly disdainful air of a man obliged to hold his wife's handbag, occasionally stood back to investigate his pockets or swab himself with a handkerchief. Perhaps he was just demonstrating that the orchestra and soloists were well-enough rehearsed to motor along without his hand at the wheel.
He swung back to full-attention mode and Schoenberg's Variations for Orchestra emerged in luxuriant bloom, at once precisely delineated and expressively glowing, a scorching rebuttal to anyone who claims that twelve tone music is automatically incomprehensible or devoid of all feeling.
A short-breathed opening belied an expansive reading of Brahms' Fourth Symphony. A balance weighted more toward the formal than the expressive element was perhaps to be expected, and Barenboim's sculptural definition securely contained its romantic sweep. I found myself impressed rather than moved.
It was a shame the enthusiastic applause and cheering had to be accompanied by an undercurrent of booing - no doubt directed at the political rather than the musical element, but grossly unfair on the musicians.
Having commented that he's usually asked to say what's wrong with the Middle East, Barenboim claimed "you've just heard what’s right with the Middle East” before baiting another tiresome faction of his opponents with a rousing encore of Wagner’s first Meistersinger prelude.
More cheering, more booing, and I wasn't sure if the Palestinian flag unrolled in the Arena was a gesture of support or criticism - either way, it struck a jarringly divisive note next to the hugging and handshaking of the orchestra members.
Most of the orchestra finished for the night at this point, leaving just a handful to return an hour later for the late night concert. This began with the brief shards of Pierre Boulez's Stravinsky tribute Mémoriale (... explosante-fixe ... Originel), followed by the surprise appearance of the composer himself on stage.
Then came another living legend, this time actor/writer/director Patrice Chéreau, reading all the speaking parts in Stravinsky's L'histoire du soldat. This work has too many words and too little music to be improved by such an economically-textured approach, even when the performer is as distinguished as Chéreau. And of course the condensation of all roles into one performer limits spontaneity and removes one layer of engagement. Although Chéreau's performance was powerful and charismatic - or maybe because it was - the music took on the character of interludes to a monologue, illustrative asides. This was far from Stravinsky's intent. It's a difficult work to pull off, and while this performance displayed the content effectively enough, it didn't communicate the essence.