in: Reviews

January 28, 2013

Ensemble with a Mission

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Yesterday afternoon Celebrity Series of Boston presented for the first, but hopefully not last, time the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, Daniel Barenboim conducting. Under the immortal composer’s heraldic shield on Symphony Hall’s proscenium arch, they presented Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 2 and 3.

The ensemble takes its name from Goethe’s late poetry collection, West-Eastern Divan (first published 1819; expanded edition 1827), a foundational work for developing the idea of world literature, world culture more generally. Created in 1999 by Barenboim and the late humanist and scholar Edward Said, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—like Goethe’s poetic diwan—seeks to bridge East and West, specifically the border (and increasingly wall) separating Israel and Palestine. Now housed in Seville, Spain, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra continues to assemble and train Arab and Israeli musicians and tour the world making music. An equal number of young Israeli and Arab musicians form the core membership of this ensemble, joined by Andalusian musicians to round out the full orchestra. A press release for the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, reprinted in the program book, includes this apt description of the ensemble’s mission:

While music alone cannot resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, it grants the individual the right and obligation to express himself fully while listening to his neighbor. Based on this notion of equality, co-operation, and justice for all, the orchestra represents an alternative model to the current situation in the Middle East.

As Gertrude Stein put it, listening while speaking is the mark of a true genius; these musicians merit the accolade. It is fitting that Goethe, writing at the beginning of our modern age of the nation-state, should preside (at least in name) over a musical model that seeks an end to conflicts inspired by the system of those selfsame nation-states.

And listen to their neighbors these musicians did. Lofty mission and noble aims aside, the concert began with the musicians walking onto the stage together. First visually then aurally the performers united into a coherent ensemble, combining strengths to present a concert of familiar music in hair-raisingly impassioned readings.

Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2 in D, op. 36 (1802) is a capstone to the Classical symphony and comes at the end of the composer’s early period. Debts to Haydn and Mozart are obvious, but so too is Beethoven’s distinctive compositional voice. The first movement was declamatory and rollicking; from the opening Adagio molto through the Allegro con brio, there was a clarity and judicious balance of all the musical lines, and a cohesion even when Barenboim gave the reins to the orchestra. There was an organic, flowing motion throughout this movement—and the symphony as a whole—as the shifting kaleidoscope of musical ideas all fell into their proper place. The first movement concluded with a lengthier pause before the final chord, reiterating the sense of declamation. The Larghetto was tender without ever losing momentum; it was also playful, with a refined and witty interplay between orchestral sections as they varied the articulation on the same theme. The ominous undertones were never murky, and added a frisson of tension to the music. The Scherzo and Trio:  Allegro, “the inaugural symphonic scherzo from Beethoven” as the program notes put it, I heard more as a nostalgia for the Classical scherzo, here imbued with a sadness or a longing for the passing of an era. The playfulness we associate with Beethoven’s scherzi I heard in the finale, Allegro molto:  fire, passion, smooth legato lines cavorted and traded places in this movement, all marked by a heightened tension thanks to the timing and perfectly tiered dynamics. The coda was fiery, all lines contributing in due measure to the build up and conclusion of this work. The final chord was short, a simple swipe:  classical restraint obtained at work’s end.

After intermission, the musicians returned to the stage for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, op. 55, “Eroica.” There is much in this symphony that is new, for its time, and now (if not at the première) is dearly beloved by many. Unlike other renditions I have heard, here in the opening Allegro con brio the novelty of the stuttering strings at the end of the development section was brought to the fore, along with snippets of the melody heard before the horn’s return to the opening theme. We heard all the lines clearly, for a change; this was Beethoven performed with a Mozartian clarity. The second movement Marcia funebre:  Adagio assai was serious, not lugubrious; it was momentous, gradually attaining moments of fleet deftness before the weighty climax which fades into the recapitulation with its grave fugato; a piercingly tender restatement yielded to an inexorable march and a lush conclusion. This was a bittersweet surmounting of grief, with one final burst of sound before fading away. The Scherzo:  Allegro vivace – Trio began with a lightness more often heard in performances of Mendelssohn’s music, before the Beethovian vigor took over and the play shifted to agogic accents; the Trio had the profundity of a chorale without losing forward motion, and only succumbed to the return of the Scherzo. The Finale: Allegro molto – Poco andante – Presto was marked by a heroic fugato, here realized with the presence and dedication of all the orchestral players. This made the following lightness all the more remarkable, before the lilting strains of Eastern European music sallied forth. The conclusion was rousing.  All in all, this reading of the “Eroica” was epic yet beautifully paced so that it had a rightness to it.

The audience recalled Barenboim to the stage three times, as it expressed its collective pleasure in what heights he and all the musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra scaled. Only as I walked away from Symphony Hall did it strike me that this concert is one of a United States tour presenting all the Beethoven symphonies. At no time ever did this concert feel like a recitation, rote or otherwise, of tediously familiar music; at every turn the musicians played with the freshness and intensity of a first encounter, the engagement of passion, of sheer pleasure in the music and their accomplishments. Would that we all could be blessed with more such concerts!

Cashman Kerr Prince, trained in Classics and Comparative Literature, is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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