West-Eastern Divan Ensemble’s first American tour features Kennedy Center performance

Washington Performing Arts presents new ensemble of young Israeli and Arab musicians that perform together in a musical expression of unity

The world is so full of intractable political and cultural issues, with deep chasms making understanding, let alone peace, seem so far away. But the venerable Washington Performing Arts (WPA) continues to find ways to cut across borders and boundaries through the arts.

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble. Photo by Peter Adamik.

We in the DMV are fortunate to have The World in Our City created by the Washington Performing Arts. It is a blueprint for celebrating the vast diversity of the DC area with a focus on international cultural understanding.

And now the WPA is presenting the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble led by concertmaster Michael Barenboim. The Ensemble brings together young Israeli and Arab musicians through their shared connections of music. How beautiful is that?

This is the first concert tour of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble. After its upcoming performance at The Kennedy Center, the Ensemble will perform at Carnegie Hall.

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble is a chamber orchestra formation of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra founded by renowned conductor/pianist (and Michael’s father) Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian scholar/author Edward Said. The name West-Eastern Divan comes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s collection of poems “West-Eastern Divan,” a work for the development of the concept of world culture.

“In 2018, Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center co-presented the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra the day after November midterm elections, a concert that provided a welcome sense of unity after a season of political discord,” said Jenny Bilfield, President and CEO of Washington Performing Arts in a recent interview. “It is a privilege this season to present the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, a smaller cohort but one that shares the same powerful vision that collaboration supersedes national and cultural boundaries: a much-needed message that resonates loudly for us!”

Concertmaster Michael Barenboim. Photo by Marcus Hohn.

The Ensemble’s diversity extends to The Kennedy Center evening’s program, comprised of classic works from Brahms and Mendelssohn and a recent composition by contemporary French composer Benjamin Attahir, who draws inspiration from cultures of both the West and East.

The Divan Ensemble will perform Brahms String Sextet No. 1, Op. 18.,

Benjamin Attahir Jawb for String Octet (commissioned by West-Eastern Divan Orchestra), and Mendelssohn Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20.

I had the opportunity to learn more in a conversation with Concertmaster Barenboim as he and the Ensemble readied themselves for the upcoming American tour.

David Siegel: Please tell us about the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble?

Michael Barenboim: The Ensemble is new. The Orchestra was created in 1999 by Edward Said and my father, with the idea of offering an alternative model of thought for the region not based on conflict violence and ignorance, but on dialogue, understanding and acceptance of the other. The Ensemble allows us to make music in a more intimate chamber setting and allowing the audience to experience our musicians in a more individual way. We’re very excited to be touring the U.S. with this group.

Why did you select the music you have for the Kennedy Center performance of West-Eastern Divan Ensemble?

We have two of the most important works for strings of the 19th century in Mendelssohn’s string octet and Brahms’ first string sextet, coupled with a new piece by Lebanese French composer Benjamin Attahir. It will be interesting for the audience to hear how this piece interacts with the other two.

If you could invite audiences to the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble performance, what would you say to them?

We’re very excited to be touring the U.S. with this group. We have no political message, in fact, we have and encourage diversity of opinion. First and foremost though, we are musicians that hope to give the best possible concert experience to the public.

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble led by concertmaster Michael Barenboim plays Thursday, February 27, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. at the Terrace Theater, The Kennedy Center  2700 F Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 467-4600, or toll-free at (800) 444-1324, or purchase them https://www.washingtonperformingarts.org/calendar/view.aspx?id=4196

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David Siegel
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on DC Theater Arts, ShowBiz Radio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with the American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.


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