West-Eastern Divan Concert Istanbul

The applause after the first number, Leonore Overture, No. 3, Op. 72, was overwhelming. Beethoven is usually rousing, but there was a quality to the upsurge of gratitude and appreciation that seemed to exceed recognition of the quality of the performance. My own guess is that a significant component of the emotion was sheer relief – for now, at least, the Israeli/Hezbollah ceasefire plan in Lebanon appears to be working.
This orchestra is the 1999 brainchild of intellectual and public critic Edward Said (a Palestinian); and conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim (an Israeli). Its performances raise money to support young people from the Middle East and Israel to play classical music together. The Foundation, now based in Seville, Spain, issued a declaration in 2004, and
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An ancient hall of Topkapi Palace, the Hagia Eirene Museum was sold out but we obtained standing room only tickets and wound up sitting (comfortably enough) in the rear stairwell (our view from below, first half; for the second half we made it to the uppermost stairs). Acoustically, I was amazed at the sound. It was stunning. I wondered about performances in this space over the millennia (!) and the constitution of audiences. What kinds of court intrigues and politics occurred during and regarding public performances? How public was “public”, then? (I was unaware at the time of the cancellation and reinstatement of the concert for political purposes.)
I haven’t attended a live orchestra performance for at least 20 years. Various impressions flitted through my mind mixed with vague memories of growing up. Have I heard these pieces before? It was an educated audience, no one applauded falsely between the many movements of Schubert’s Trout Quintet. After the third or forth movement the audience and musicians had cohered. The warmth of the summer evening and lack of ventilation heated up the air to the edge of discomfort: the discipline of sitting still and listening was released in a full group rustle of throat-clearing, rapid brochure-fanning, and general bodily rearrangement. Such was reenacted in each pause thereafter.
What a contrast with Depeche Mode and its audience’s constant, unrestrained movement and attention leapfrogging between the music, mobiles, location, beer…
I also thought about voice and modern-day, mass-mediated politics. I imagined mideast politics as a symphony. There’s the constant thrum of the violins, the basics of everyday life, ebbing and cresting in twitters, chirps, and plucks of melancholy, pleasure, contentment, discord. Occasionally deep swells converge in coordinated harmonies, complimenting or contesting other tides. The deeper strings, brass and woodwinds vacillate among drawing out the dark power of living and accentuating the surface manifestations of conflict and dissension. Percussion marks the points of decision. Commit or retreat but know that whichever is chosen is consequential, even if only circumstantially so.
I know my characterization is crude: I am not a musician. But I felt the music and this is what I thought: a strong voice was needed to pound the drums long and hard enough to force political forces to stop the surface burst of unbelievable human violence. Let’s say the voices of my friends raised in outrage were the cellos and horns, and I came in as a woodwind. Or perhaps I was a lone French Horn against the trumpets. My notes were heard (?) as a threat to the cohesion of the necessary cumulation of voice (sound, power). I would prefer to be positioned as a complementary voice playing an alternative melody, or striking my notes along a different yet compatible scale (but this may be out of my control). What matters to me is the overall “sound” &emdash; the co-generated orchestral production. What a good conductor does is balance the volume of each section (sometimes even each individual instrument) so that each thematic strand is auditorily consonant with every other; but the conductor cannot make this happen, the musicians must be responsive, they must trust the conductor’s ear, which hears that which they cannot.
I suppose I came up with this analogy because of a section in Brahms Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68. I am not sure which instrument it was, perhaps (?) the contrabassoon. Its sound was almost too deep, too soft to be discerned yet Barenboim coaxed it up, quieting the violins just enough for the lone voice to emerge with the distinctiveness of its own rhythm.
Of course, the difference in social relations and musical collaboration are that there are no conductors (or too many, smile) for social relations. There is also little precedent for such wholistic orchestration in societies or groups where, for instance, we are mostly strangers to each other. Hence, our attunements are more likely random and historical rather than deliberate and visionary.
At the end of the concert I wanted more. So did the vast majority of the audience, and I believe the musicians did too. No go. 🙁 Maybe Barenboim wasn’t feeling well; maybe he was affected by the absence of the double-bassist who had been called back to Berlin for some reason (leading to an alteration in the program). Who knows. The love was there. 🙂
The audience’s appreciation did not dim after that first round of applause, making me wonder if it was “only” the music after all. Or perhaps the even more simple effect of the fundraiser wine we had to gulp before entering? 🙂 The music was extraordinary, of that there can be no doubt. The setting was magical, the timing historic, the company superb. (Erdem did make sure there was no confusion about our relationship.) 😉
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The title of the orchestra is from Goethe’s poem of this name, West-Eastern Divan, “in which he brings the poetic culture culture of the Islamic and Western worlds together” (liner notes). Goethe is noted for beginning to learn Arabic after the age of 60 as well as for truthfully representing “the Eastern spirit of poetry.” Imagine! Old dogs can learn new tricks!

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