Does the world really need any more recordings of Beethoven's symphonies? Probably not. But, a cycle of all nine Beethoven symphonies performed live by one of the most talented—and unlikely—youth orchestras in the world? Sign me up.
That's precisely what Carnegie Hall offered up last week, with four concerts by the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Seville-based orchestra composed of young musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other Arab countries. Founded in 1999 by the late scholar Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, who still serves as their Music Director, the West-Eastern Divan is a living testament to the power of listening.
As any conductor will tell you, musicians in an orchestra need to listen to one another, or the whole performance quickly falls apart. And, while Barenboim is quick to point out that the WEDO is not an orchestra for peace, the co-existence of these young Israeli and Palestinian players onstage provides a palpable lesson for the political leaders of their war-torn countries.
When Barenboim came onstage last Wednesday night for the first of four concerts, I was immediately struck by how frail he appeared. Now 70, Barenboim's slow amble through the chairs served as reminder that the life of a jet-setting conductor isn't as glamorous—or as healthy—as some might think: in addition to the West-Eastern Divan, Barenboim concurrently serves as music director of both the Berlin Staatskapelle and La Scala, while still managing to squeeze in a few piano recitals each season.
It was still clear that Barenboim takes a special sense of pride in this orchestra, holding his arm aloft as he reached the podium so that the audience could acknowledge the players with extended, raucous applause. The sight of this seasoned master—one of the world's great conductors, by any reasonable criteria—with his hand-selected pupils was simply staggering.
Before long, the WEDO launched into the sunbeams and fury of Beethoven's First Symphony, a radiant blast from the turn of the 19th century that straddled the classical/romantic divide. By the time they got to the powerful, vibrant finale, it was clear that this was an orchestra of not just superb technical ability, but deep-seated emotion.
Five minutes into Beethoven's Eighth Symphony, I was blown back in my seat by the power of the orchestra's playing, blasting through Beethoven's fortissimo marking, and then some. Before long, Barenboim had lost all signs of old age, digging deep and exhorting his young charges to play ever more forcefully. By the time they got to the final Allegro, both Barenboim and orchestra were churning on all cylinders. Electric.
No matter how many times I hear Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, it never ceases to grab me by the throat. From its iconic first four notes (da-da-da-dum), you know you are in the presence of a radical spirit, overflowing with anger, dread, and—finally—ecstatic joy. Barenboim and the WEDO milked it for all it was worth, exploding chord after chord with an ever-increasing sense of urgency.
I didn't get to attend any of the remaining three concerts in person, but I did manage to catch the tail end of Sunday's closing matinee on WQXR, with a performance of Beethoven's Ninth (with the Westminster Symphonic Choir and soloists) that was simultaneously the speediest and most profound I've ever heard. Has there ever been an orchestra who better represented Schiller's poem?
"Thy magic power reunites
All that custom has divided,
All men become brothers
Under the sway of thy gentle wings"
If for some reason you're still missing that Beethoven cycle in your CD collection, Barenboim and the WEDO recorded them for Decca last year. Appropriately enough, it's called "Beethoven For All."
Archive audio of Sunday's concert below. More pics on the photo page.