I was lucky enough to see the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Ramallah in 2005 when they played Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I wrote about it in my book, but it was one of the sections that got cut.
I’m publishing it now because the Orchestra will be in New York, at Carnegie Hall no less, next week. I snapped up balcony seats for Wednesday (when they’ll play the 1st, 8th, and 5th) and Sunday (when they’ll play the 2nd and 9th).
Either way, I always assumed seeing them play Beethoven’s Fifth would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Getting to see them again — playing both the Fifth AND the Ninth — is like a dream.
Here’s the excised section from my book about the thrill of seeing them for the first time in Ramallah.
Israeli Musicians Discover Ramallah
An Israeli convoy of armored vehicles with a police escort made its way past the Qalandia checkpoint toward Ramallah. It stopped on a hill that commanded a strategic view of the city. The hilltop was the home of the Ramallah Cultural Palace, and the Israeli musicians being transported by the convoy were on a world tour with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra.
The orchestra was founded by late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said and superstar Argentinian-Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim and featured musicians from Israel, Palestine, and the greater Middle East. Their concert was played that evening under the banner of “Freedom for Palestine” and broadcast live on the Arte channel, which enjoyed its highest-ever ratings. Journalists from all over the world prowled the grounds, and the venue was overwhelmed by the crowd.
This Week in Palestine reported, “There were at least four ministers from the Palestinian National Authority, security offices in uniform, men and women casually dressed, others in proper attire, ladies with jewelry and gowns ready for a soiree dansante and others with the traditional headdress. There were children, foreigners, disabled persons, nuns—you name it! Palestine was there that night.”
The evening began with Mozart’s Sinfonia Concertante for oboe, horn, clarinet and bassoon. But I was impatient for the main event: Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
From the opening notes of the symphony, musicians and audience members alike entered a kind of trance. Something about it—the music, the venue, the fact that minds were opening and changing due to something as simple and natural as human interaction—pulled us along and refused to let go. We listened in awe to the powerful first and sumptuous second movements, then the third with its pompous processional quality, which faded to a pianissimo pizzicato—a recapitulation of the processional theme so achingly soft, the audience hardly dared breathe. Soon the pizzicato faded, too, leaving a single violin playing softly, plaintively in this sudden space. Then off they went, sound and fury, speed and strength, to a breathtaking finish.
The crowd was almost too stunned to react. When we did, the ovation went on and on as the young musicians took their bows with shining eyes.
“We couldn’t understand where that speed came from,” Israeli violinist Doron Alperin said. “He had never conducted Beethoven that way before. There was electricity in the orchestra and emotion pulled at the throat. What an ending to our trip!”
Doron had been terrified to come to Ramallah. In fact, his parents had forbidden him from making the trip. But he had come anyway, because he was even more afraid of disappointing the maestro than of visiting the West Bank.
When asked if his fears were unfounded, he said, “Yes, and I wouldn’t have forgiven myself if I hadn’t gone. During the intermission, I spoke with one of the Palestinian guards and asked him if he was happy we came. ‘You can’t imagine how happy I am,’ he replied, and it simply gave me goosebumps. ‘And you?’ he asked. I told him I was in a state of ecstasy… Now I am only resentful that not everyone can see the situation through my eyes.”
My favorite statement was made by Israeli violinist Yishai Lantner who said, “This is the realization of a dream. I feel as if I am becoming more and more leftist because now I understand that there is life here. They never show that on television.”
It was a source of frustration for everyone who lived in the West Bank. There was so much life in Palestine, so much beauty. But it was never reported on the news or shown in movies, so no one ever saw it unless they were lucky enough to come for a visit themselves.
1. Sani Meo, “The last word: A Jew in Ramallah,” This Week in Palestine, August 2005.
2. Noam Ben Zeev, “Next year in Damascus,” Haaretz, August 24, 2005.