The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble of musicians between the ages of 15 and 36, equally Israeli and Palestinian (but also from Spain, where they rehearse), was founded a little over a decade ago by conductor-pianist Daniel Barenboim (who made headlines performing Wagner in Israel) and the late Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said. Their name comes from a suite of poems about the Middle East by Goethe. The word “divan,” or “diwan,” has numerous definitions. It means a collection of Persian or Arabic poems and also refers to the privy council of the Ottoman Empire, not to mention a long couch. The couch is probably not what Goethe had in mind, but it fits what Barenboim and Said were attempting: to bring young Middle Eastern artists together who might not, outside of their music-making, feel comfortable sitting together.
The Celebrity Series of Boston brought them to Symphony Hall as part of their current American tour (in which they’re playing a complete Beethoven symphony cycle), and they make refined music. But their story of coexistence seems more important than their playing, at least under Barenboim. Bringing young musicians to Boston is a slightly “coals to Newcastle” enterprise. We have higher-level youth orchestras here. And Barenboim doesn’t inspire the kind of breathless excitement that Gustavo Dudamel arouses from the Venezuelan kids in the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra.
Excitement was mostly missing in the Beethoven symphonies Barenboim brought here: the Second and Third (Eroica). Beethoven’s youthful Symphony No. 2 in D was downright stodgy, though with some elegant dynamic changes, a commendable clarity emerging from the antiphonal first and second violin sections, and a touching melancholia in the Larghetto. But Barenboim is a micromanager, and too many careful details never didn’t add up.
In the development section midway through the first movement of the Eroica, Barenboim, with knees bending, began building some tension, some suspense. He took the famous funeral march at a daringly slow tempo, more lament than march. And the remaining movements were livelier than in No. 2, but even the exuberance remained repressed.
I was surprised not to see the players listed in the program. Turns out this is a security measure. They or their families could be targeted because they’re playing with “the enemy” (hence the workshops and rehearsals in Seville). Who knows how many barriers they can succeed in breaking down? But how moving it is that they’re determined to try.