In the complicated universe of friendships, that of Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim holds a special place, and today, listening to the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra at Symphony Hall in Boston, the magnitude of that friendship–its endurance, and generosity–was what stayed after the last notes of Beethoven’s Third symphony brought the concert to a close, after the five standing ovations died down, after the packed hall was slowly emptied of its listeners.
It was an extraordinary afternoon of music making, this very young orchestra of Arab and Jew, Palestinian and Israeli, in equal numbers, together with a small group of Spanish musicians. (The orchestra is based in Seville, Spain.) Extraordinary not only for the sound, the electric atmosphere, the passionate conducting, not only for the achievement which the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra represents, but also for what was invisible but full of weight and presence: two human beings who met by accident in a London lobby, fashioned a deep intellectual friendship, began an extended conversation about art and politics and transcendence. But more: they produced a gem of a book, Parallels and Paradoxes, which is a slim, beautiful volume of the conversations between them; they and their project were the subject of a terrific documentary, Knowledge is the Beginning; and most important, they were the visionaries behind the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is currently on tour in the US, performing the complete cycle of Beethoven symphonies.
There are some words which have been used so much and with such promiscuity as to have been drained of any meaning. Legacy is one such word. I will not use it here though it is the appropriate word in this context. Besides, it’s maudlin to talk about the power of artistic legacy to overcome political strife so bloody is our world these days. Yet it is every person’s dream, I would like to believe, to have at least one great, life-defining friendship which is for the generations. To paraphrase and bend a little what Barenboim himself has said in another context: Every friendship looks two ways–inward to the persons who infuse it with meaning and consequence, and outward to the world and to eternity.
This was the meaning of the afternoon for me, a meaning deep in the weave of the music, the orchestra, the conductor. The applause was sustained and full of gratitude, the chorus loud and persistent. We seemed to be in the midst of some affirmation, of a world made anew albeit for a fleeting two hours, of a glimpse of radiance amidst the darkness. And to think that it began, as such things usually do, in a chance meeting of two people divided by history, biography, politics and native language.