Making a documentary for BBC Two on the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra's Beethoven project
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is formed from a number of Israeli and Arab musicians together with a group of Spanish musicians. They meet each summer in Seville for a workshop, where rehearsals are complemented by lectures and discussions, which is then followed by an international concert tour. Michael Waldman gives an account of following Daniel Barenboim and the Orchestra on their tour of China and South Korea and the performance of the Nine Beethoven Symphonies.
I have arrived with a small film crew and we are, like the rest of the orchestra, awaiting the arrival of the Maestro. Daniel Barenboim founded the West Eastern Divan Orchestra 13 years ago with the Palestinian writer Edward Said. The atmosphere on this bright day in late July 2011 is relaxed. In counterpoint with the sound of sprinklers to keep the tough Spanish grass green in the searing heat is a distant cacophony of instrumental sounds – a trumpet fanfaring from an upper window, a couple of double basses growling together on the forecourt, a timpanist practising her drum rolls in the open-doored chapel.
The red Mercedes rolls up, and a tanned Barenboim, after a rare couple of days holiday nearby, emerges to puff on a large cigar and strolls through the compound, greeting his colleagues affectionately and fluently in five languages – his native Spanish (born in Argentina) for the musicians and managers from the region, Hebrew for the Israelis, French and English for the Arabs, and German for the one or two Turkish members of the orchestra who live in Germany and whose English might not be fluent.
It’s all peculiarly appropriate for their upcoming 2011 project: a tour of China and Korea, where they will be performing a complete cycle of the symphonies of Beethoven. All music of course has the capacity to communicate across barriers of language and politics, but Beethoven’s symphonies have a clear – and in the Ninth Symphony, an explicit – intention to communicate about the human condition. Barenboim – who as a pianist as well as a conductor has probably performed more of Beethoven’s music than most musicians – is himself no stranger to worldly issues. He is the ideal person to be at the centre of a 90-minute documentary about these nine symphonies that so profoundly affected the history of music – and which have been so used and abused for political purposes.
But first I have to persuade him to talk on camera. Famously articulate, he is also famously overworked – and mercurial. I start with the relaxed approach, no pressure, just the odd question thrown at him casually. The orchestra manager has placed towel and water carefully by the podium, and Barenboim launches into Beethoven with energy, precision, insight and humour, and the results are fascinating. Every player is on the edge of his or her seat. Their conductor is truly their Maestro, and assumes and expects them to be at full concentration – picking up in less than two seconds on any instruction, knowing exactly where he means when he barks 'two bars before the last fortissimo'. Woe betide any player caught on the hop.
Over the next few days, the Beethoven Symphonies are given a riveting forensic examination. The former seminary has a large swimming pool, and between intense rehearsals the players relax and banter. An Israeli trombone player teases his Arab trumpeter colleague in a way that only true friends can get away with.
I and film crew fly to Beijing a day before the musicians and capture them as they arrive at the airport. Barenboim is whisked to his hotel, greeted by the management, and ushered up to his suite. On the players’ bus, a Palestinian violinist googles the word for ‘no’ in Mandarin, and shares with an Israeli cellist friend attempts on how it might be pronounced.
Their first concert includes the Eroica Symphony. The Beijing audience seems gripped. The Fifth Symphony in Shanghai of course brings the house down. And in the stunning slow movement of the Seventh I can see through the cameras that the players are even more than usually affected by the brilliance of its construction, and the intensity of feeling Beethoven can evoke.
A few days later, we are in South Korea. Barenboim has not been entirely satisfied with every performance, and in one rehearsal lets rip at a poor wind player whose attitude has displeased him. It is not a pretty sight. But later we film the Maestro being driven from Seoul to the Demilitarized Zone between South and North Korea for the final performance of the tour – the Ninth Symphony, with Korean singers, in an outdoor concert in sight of the barbed wire border. In the car, Barenboim is at his charming best: he goes into raptures over his coconut ice-cream, smokes a fine cigar, tells hilarious tales about the great British conductor John Barbirolli, and reflects on the political exploitation – by Bismarck, Hitler and many others – of Beethoven’s setting of Schiller’s Ode to Joy and its expression of universal brotherhood.
As the magnificent slow movement of the Ninth Symphony is performed with all the passion and finesse that these forces can bring, we film a long slow panning shot over the faces of thousands of Koreans, spellbound by its power.
Barenboim on Beethoven: Nine Symphonies That Changed The World
(Produced and Directed by Michael Waldman)
Saturday July 28 at 9.25pm on BBC Two
Michael Waldman has made a wide variety of television programmes, from observational documentary series (The House [BBC2], about a turbulent year in the life of the Royal Opera House; The Greatest Show On Earth[BBC1] – the Olympic Games) through political/social documentaries (Water Wars [BBC2]) to factual entertainment (Hot Wax; Ruby Wax With…[BBC1]), constructed arts performance shows (Operatunity; Musicality; My Shakespeare; Ballet Changed My Life –Ballet Hoo! [all Channel 4]), and history (Victorian Sex Explorer; The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron - both with Rupert Everett [C4]). In the process he has won a BAFTA, an International EMMY, Royal Television Society awards and the PRIX ITALIA. In the past year his films include three 90-minute specials – Darcey Bussell Dances Hollywood [BBC2 on Christmas Day]; Elizabeth Taylor – Auction of a Lifetime [C4] and the upcoming Barenboim on Beethoven – Nine Symphonies That Changed The World [BBC2].