Barenboim goes where he wants

Defying the Israelis, he plays in Ramallah

September 11, 2002|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The composer and conductor Daniel Barenboim came here yesterday to play the piano, an undertaking more complicated than it sounds.

He defied Israel's ban on Israelis' entering Palestinian cities and performed Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata before 300 mostly rapt students at Ramallah's Friends Boys School. He offered no solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just pleasure.

"I am not a politician," Barenboim told his audience. "I have no plan to solve the conflict. What I can do is play music for you. And I hope that in a very small way, we are able to tear down the hatred. This is why I came here - to stretch out my hand as a musician and to hear about your life."

Barenboim, who was born in Argentina, grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany, has irked his fellow Israelis in the past by criticizing Israel's policies governing Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Last year, he created a furor in Jerusalem by conducting a German orchestra's performance of music by Richard Wagner, the 19th-century composer whose anti-Semitic writings influenced Hitler and whose music was showcased during Nazi rallies.

In March, Barenboim stirred anger by trying to visit Ramallah after several deadly suicide bombings by Palestinian militants. Israeli troops refused to give Barenboim a permit, and he decided to forgo the trip when the army told him he would be turned back at a checkpoint. He could have used his Argentine passport to enter but wanted to make a point of visiting the Palestinian city as an Israeli.

Despite his past controversies, Israeli officials invited Barenboim back this week to participate in the Fifth International Chamber Music Festival. Israeli police said yesterday that they placed armed guards outside his Jerusalem hotel after he received several death threats attributed to Jewish extremist groups.

It was unclear how Barenboim entered Ramallah. He arrived at the school in a white Mercedes from the German Consulate.

The students who packed the auditorium at the Quaker-run school cheered wildly when Barenboim walked down the aisle and stepped onto the stage.

Barenboim acknowledged the crowd with a wave, sat down at a scuffed, half-century old baby-grand Steinway, and filled the auditorium with the blissful sounds of Beethoven.

His audience fell silent.

"I am happy to be with you," the composer told his audience in Arabic. Then, in English, said he had repeatedly been asked why he wanted to visit Ramallah.

"This is not a political act," he said. "But I think we can't just anymore in the 21st century sit back and say, `We chose our leaders, so let them do it.' They never do it."

The composer said he picked Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata only "because it's a beautiful piece of music."

Barenboim then invited youngsters to the stage to play for him and their classmates. Sileen Khoury, 16, Nadia Arouri, 15, and Zelna Amr, 14, went up and performed to thunderous applause.

Amr was so nervous, she forgot the name of the piece she played. "I was frightened," she said. "That was the first time I had ever gotten up on stage and played in front of students. He told me it was nice."

Arouri played Barcarolle by Mendelssohn, a piece associated with gondoliers in Venice because its steady rhythm is like that of a gently rocking boat.

"This song is totally opposite what's happening," she said after getting Barenboim's autograph. "I want the situation here to be like the song."

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