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Tristan and the gaza strip at the proms

Updated: May 3, 2022

The Proms are in full swing. We’re half-way through and I’ve been doing the BBC2 ones scattered through August this year.

Last night it was Daniel Barenboim and the East-West Divan Orchestra, his pet project of young Arab and Israeli musicians who swallow their political differences and unite in the playing of music.

I have to say that they’re not the finest orchestra in the world, nor is Barenboim the finest conductor. There were many moments during last night’s performance of Mahler’s 1st that DB leaned back on his podium, arms folded listening to the orchestra play, which either shows touching confidence in their organic ability to stay together or is just self-indulgence on his part. In either case, the orchestra was often all over the shop and the performance lacked the precision Schwung that makes Mahler magical.

That said, it was a memorable Prom for it’s extra-musical significance. (Though there’s quite an argument that music is supreme among the Arts precisely because it needs no extra-musical significance.) These young performers, as Barenboim said in his post-performance speech, exhibit huge courage in coming together in spite of their warring communities’ emnity. Barenboim receives death threats from Zionist extremists, the Orchestra has to travel under heavy security. Next week they will play in Ramallah on the West Bank, and flaunting that old Israeli taboo, they will be playing Wagner.

Wagner was hideously anti-Semitic and his music was undoubtably championed by the Nazi regime. But it is still ecstatically beautifully and it returns us to the afore-mentioned saw: should the extra-musical context of music matter?

As the East-West Divan Orchestra played Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde as our second encore of the evening, it was a moot point. The wave-upon-wave spiral of upwards-welling ecstasy that ends that piece – no matter how wonky the playing might have been – still moved me to tears. Was it the music? Was it all those young people doing what millions of Israelis and Palestinians cannot do – unite? I’m not sure. Nor did I really care.

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