The Ramallah Concert - Knowledge is The Beginning. A Film by Paul Smaczny. West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim. 93-minute documentary and live concert. © 2006 Euroarts International


A Common Objective

RON BIERMAN's 2011 DVD review of a concert given by Daniel Barenboim's West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, republished with an update about the orchestra

'... a tremendous, emotional, not-to-be-missed experience.'


This review was originally published in 2011. Classical Music Daily is bringing it back with an update about how the orchestra has fared since the Ramallah concert discussed in the review. Publicity for the few on-going successful attempts to improve relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors is especially important today when violence seems the only alternative for both sides. The continuing success of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra shows that even bitter foes can work together when they share a common interest and come to a better understanding of the people and culture they hate.

As I said more than a decade ago:

This is an inspiring release both for those who despair over Middle Eastern politics and those who believe music can do more than entertain. The first DVD in the set of two contains a documentary that explains the origins of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra; the second is the recording of a concert it gave in Ramallah, a Palestinian city on the Jordan's West Bank.

The orchestra is the result of a collaboration between its conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian scholar, Edward Said. It consists of talented young musicians from Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Spain and Syria. Not a list of countries noted for close cooperation. Under Barenboim's charismatic and demanding direction, the musicians have worked together to achieve a thoroughly professional sound.

Watch and listen — Barenboim Rehearsing (Knowledge Is the Beginning)
(2564 69480-6 DVD 1, chapter 2, 2:35-3:28) © 2006 EuroArts:


More importantly, they have proven a point made by Mustafa Barghouti of the Palestinian National Initiative when he said that 'Knowledge Is the Beginning', the phrase that became the title of this award-winning documentary.

Drawn together with the common objective of interpreting great works, the young people of the orchestra soon find they indeed know little about their counterparts in closely neighboring countries. Many educated Palestinians have never interacted with Israelis in a non-military setting, and intelligent Israelis, on an orchestra visit to Morocco, are amazed to see signs of culture and wealth that belie Arab stereotypes. Yet by the time of the concert in Ramallah, many friendships are formed between these supposedly implacable enemies because they have shared a common experience and learned their interests and goals are not as different as they had thought.

Barenboim knows he hasn't solved the Middle East's problems. At several points in the documentary, difficult questions are asked. An Israeli wants to know how he can make peace with people who want to kill him. A Palestinian describes the daily humiliations imposed by the Israeli military. Barenboim himself, accepting an award in a ceremony in the Knesset, makes it clear he opposes West Bank settlements. The clearly furious Minister of Education, Livor Livnat, makes it equally clear his comments are unwelcome.

And so the conductor can only increase understanding and reduce friction among a small number of people for the length of time that they practice and play together. But he has shown that cooperation is possible, and more productive than hostility fueled in part by ignorance.

Watch and listen — Celebrating a Concert (Knowledge Is the Beginning)
(2564 69480-6 DVD 1, chapter 3, 8:18-9:16) © 2006 EuroArts:


Many of the musicians agonized before deciding to participate in the Ramallah concert. Officials on both sides of the border were skeptical that they could perform without incident in a Palestinian city. Numerous security officers are in evidence in the musician's caravan and at the concert hall. But thanks to Barenboim's tenacity and the courage of his players, the concert begins as scheduled. And it is a standing-room-only event.

Three works are played beginning with Mozart's Sinfonia Concertante (K297b) for oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn, which becomes even more enchanting when the four tightly interacting soloists are from Egypt, Israel and Syria.

Watch and listen — Mozart: Allegro (Sinfonia Concertante, K 297b)
(2564 69480-6 DVD 2, chapter 2, 2:57-3:52) © 2005 EuroArts:


In conducting Beethoven's Fifth, Barenboim makes no concessions to the youth and limited concert experience of his players. He pushes the tempos and dynamics as though they were his Chicago professionals to produce a passionate, exciting performance, and the impact is again amplified by the surrounding circumstances.

Watch and listen — Beethoven: Allegro (Symphony No 5)
(2564 69480-6 DVD 2, chapter 9, 4:49-5:25-chapter 10, 0:00-0:23)
© 2005 EuroArts:


The concert ends with the majestic and poignant Nimrod theme from Elgar's Enigma Variations.

Watch and listen — Elgar: Nimrod (Enigma Variations)
(2564 69480-6 DVD 2, chapter 13, 3:17-4:17) © 2005 EuroArts:


Soon after that encore, the Israeli musicians leave the hall separately in a heavily guarded cavalcade, confirming peace remains a distant goal. It wouldn't be prudent for Israelis to spend the entire night in Ramallah.

Insight into the Middle East; insight into the art of conducting; great music. This DVD set is a tremendous, emotional, not-to-be-missed experience.



What has happened to the orchestra since the Ramallah concert? It has survived and then some. Thanks largely to Daniel Barenboim's continuing dedication, it has played major concert halls around the world including those of Austria, the United States, Argentina, China, Moscow and Turkey. Guest soloists have included Martha Argerich, Lang Lang and Yo-Yo Ma. The orchestra is a regular guest at the BBC Proms and the festivals of Salzburg and Lucerne. Despite significant health issues, Barenboim will lead the musicians during this summer's European tour with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, and now related chamber groups, have won various awards from Spain to Japan. In 2016, the UN named the orchestra a United Nations Global Advocate for Cultural Understanding.

Such understanding remains absent from the Middle East. As I write this, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra can perform almost anywhere it would like to – the nations in which its young musicians were born are the most notable exceptions. After more than seventy-five years of intermittent war and terrorism, it is troubling that something Barenboim said in 2013 regarding the ongoing Israel-Palestinian conflict hasn't been accepted by more Middle Eastern politicians. While accepting an honorary doctorate from Israel's Weizmann Institute of Science he said:

We can live side by side in a two-state solution or together in one bi-national state but, we can certainly not live back-to-back.

It's not out of place to add, 'Knowledge Is the Beginning'.

Resale copies of the reviewed documentary are available on several sites including Amazon and eBay. Since my review, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has recorded often, as listed on the organization's website.

Copyright © 31 July 2011 and 3 June 2024 Ron Bierman,
San Diego, USA



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