Conductor Daniel Barenboim presented his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Washington for the first time on Wednesday night under the joint auspices of Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center. The whole, taking its name from a Goethe book dating from 1819, is an original idea of Barenboim, an Argentine-Israeli, and the late Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said. They imagined an orchestra of young Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians to promote "coexistence and intercultural dialogue". Since 1999, the orchestra has turned out to be a band capable of staying in almost every art company, thus demonstrating its just how powerful musical activism can be.
The program included two orchestral blockbusters from the end of the Romantic period, Richard Strauss's "Don Quichotte" and Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony, preceded by a short promotional video before the orchestra's performance.
The West-East Divan took a while to warm up. Once this was done, it was clear that hard winds, forward and center, and a not too refined string sound were part of the package. "Don Quixote" is a virtual concerto for cello in the form of a symphonic poem. Kian Soltani is a wonderful cellist, with a dazzling intonation and clarity of sound that extends to the highest register of the instrument. His portrait of Cervantes' hero, designed by Strauss, was captured with humor and pathos.
Barenboim directs a fifth Tchaikovsky that could have been presented 40 years ago as "Tchaikovsky without tears". It's an approach that eliminates anything that could be described as emotional excess or unseemly sensuality in favor of a vigorous masculine focus on the formal structure of etched lines, and no-nonsense textures. It was a professional reading, slightly impatient, that barely observed a pause of breath between movements. Naturally, the vastness of Tchaikovsky's genius can encompass multiple and varied interpretations, but it has appeared more aggressive than dramatic, more stentorian than expressive.