On a Berlin stage, the musicians' notes soar, harmonious. But the young Israeli and Arab virtuosos of the Barenboim-Saïd academy have “heavy hearts” and the conflict in the Middle East occupies their thoughts.
Working on his instrument, performing in concerts, studying philosophy, history and literature in English: the routine of this training which mixes music and humanities has been disrupted since October 7 and the unprecedented attack by Hamas against Israel, which responds by relentlessly bombing the Gaza Strip. “The situation has always been complex but it is the biggest test since the creation of the academy in 2016,” violinist Michael Barenboïm told AFP. Son of the conductor Daniel Barenboïm, he is the dean of this unique school, born from the dream of peace of the Israeli-Argentine maestro and the Palestinian intellectual Edward Saïd, now deceased.
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The academy's classes currently have 80 students: 17 Israelis, 6 Palestinians, Egyptians, Lebanese, Iranians, Syrians, Turks, but also a German, a Norwegian and a Venezuelan.
“Emotionally, it’s extremely complicated for them” in a context where, at a minimum, “everyone knows someone who knows someone” directly affected by the conflict, adds Michael Barenboïm, 38 years old. According to the authorities, more than 1,400 people were killed in Israel, the vast majority of them civilians, by Hamas commandos on the day of the attack. The Israeli bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip has killed more than 7,000 people, including more than 3,000 children, according to the Hamas health ministry.
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The emotion was palpable at a recent academy concert in Berlin. Before a minute of silence, the audience received a short message from the students on a sheet of paper: “We have heavy hearts and our thoughts are elsewhere with all the people affected by the devastating situation in Palestine and Israel.” After performing Wagner's Siegfried Idyll and two symphonies - by Prokofiev and Beethoven - the young people hugged each other.
Daniel Barenboïm, aged 80, who only conducts rare concerts due to his state of health, was at the podium that evening. “May music bring us together, may it heal a small part of our hearts. We can do nothing but hope for peace, freedom and security,” the students’ message said.
“It’s hard, everyone is affected. The atmosphere is heavy,” said after the concert, a 19-year-old Palestinian, who prefers to keep his name quiet and has been studying in this institution for two years. Originally from the West Bank, his family has friends in Gaza. “Many students are constantly on their cell phones and in contact with family and friends,” says Regula Rapp, director of the academy. “There is a lot of discussion between us. We try to listen to each other. Sometimes we agree, sometimes we don't. It’s not easy,” explains the young Palestinian.
The academy is an extension of the West-Eastern Divan, an orchestra founded in 1999 by the same duo of personalities, whose musicians also originating from the Middle East perform throughout the world to promote the rapprochement of peoples. The school increased the provision of psychological support via therapists and set up telephone lines in Hebrew and Arabic. Ms. Rapp hopes that “the fairly regular daily life: lessons, music, instrument practice will help the students to stabilize.”
To enter this free institution which offers a scholarship to students and accommodates them for the first two years, the selection is tough: only one candidate in three, or in four, depending on the instrument, is accepted. Michael Barenboïm would dream of seeing the academy perform in all the Middle Eastern countries where the young people come from: “At the moment, we cannot play in any country except Turkey, because of passports and pressure . It’s a dream from which we are very far away, he adds, I don’t know if I will live this moment.”