Musical master of east and west
Daniel Barenboim. Picture: Supplied.

In the great concert halls of Europe, Britain and the US, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra routinely gives acclaimed symphonic performances under the direction of Daniel Barenboim.

Yet, a lack of political courage from governments across the Middle East means 80 per cent of the musicians in Barenboim's ensemble have not been able to play with the orchestra in their home countries, be they Israel, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon or Iran. In the 13 years since the orchestra's inception, there has been just one performance in the region, in Ramallah.

Barenboim, the 69-year-old Israeli pianist and conductor who founded WEDO with the late Edward Said in 1999, has worked ceaselessly to bring the ensemble up to international level.

"We rehearse in Andalucia," he says by phone ahead of one of the orchestra's most significant performances for the opening of the London Olympics. "Twenty per cent of the players come from Spain, with another 40 per cent Israeli and the remaining 40 per cent from Syria, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt."

"Many of our performers take leave from posts in other ensembles to perform with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Three of our players are from the Berlin Philharmonic. We also have the principal oboist of the Bavarian Radio Orchestra as well as others from Amsterdam's Concertgebouw and also from New York's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.

"We hold auditions every year," said Barenboim, who, because of his Israeli citizenship is unable to oversee auditions in the Arab states. "Members of the Berlin Staatskapelle do the auditioning on my behalf in these countries."

Last month in Cologne, the orchestra recorded Beethoven's complete cycle of nine symphonies, now available on CD. The maestro has high praise for his players; he thinks they are doing a first-rate job. "I'm very much aware we have achieved a remarkable degree of homogeneity that most orchestras do not have."

All this week, Barenboim and the WEDO have been giving concerts at the famous London Proms at the Royal Albert Hall to coincide with the Olympics.

They are working their way through Beethoven's complete symphonies, culminating on Friday in the famous Ninth Symphony which incorporates the much-loved Ode to Joy which is the Olympics theme melody. (In the lead-up to the Games, an online ad by sponsor Samsung, featuring David Beckham sounding out the Ode to Joy by kicking balls at a wall of drums, received more than 4.2 million hits in a month.)

Barenboim was born of Russian-Jewish parents in Argentina in November 1942, and moved to Israel 10 years later. His career as a solo pianist was meteoric and he made his podium debut as a conductor at the young age of 24 with the English Chamber Orchestra.

Living in London in the 1960s, his youth and talent quickly gave him an aura of popular glamour which was enhanced by his marriage in 1967 to the beautiful British cellist, Jacqueline du Pre, who died tragically from multiple sclerosis in 1987.

Barenboim - celebrated internationally as one of the great pianists of the age - routinely presides over some of the finest orchestras in the world and is unambiguously frank about what the WEDO means to him.

"(Working with the orchestra) continues to be the most important activity I've been involved in," he says with a quiet intensity. "But the project's full dimension will only be achieved when we are able to play in all the countries from which our musicians come."

In January, two months after he turns 70, Barenboim and WEDO will present the complete Beethoven symphonies in New York's Carnegie Hall.

There can't be many orchestras where the concertmaster happens to be the son of the conductor, but that is the case in WEDO with young Michael Barenboim. "He understands me so well as a musician. I'm very happy he is there", his proud father says.

The double CD Beethoven For All is available now.

The West Australian

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