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Maestro Strikes a Note of Peace: Israeli Reaches Out at West Bank School

11 September 2002

Jubilant Palestinian teenagers greeted pianist Daniel Barenboim yesterday before he played Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata at a master class for young musicians in the West Bank.

The performance, attended by about 100 students in Ramallah, was nearly six months after the Israeli army refused to grant Barenboim permission for a visit. This time, Barenboim simply ignored the Israeli travel ban and entered the West Bank under German diplomatic escort.

Boys and girls dressed in their school uniforms of blue-and-white striped shirts applauded Barenboim, an Argentine-born Jew and Israeli citizen, as he entered a hall at the Friends School.

Barenboim, a world-renowned conductor, said he wanted to play his part in reducing tensions in the region.

"What I can do is play music, play music for you, and maybe this way, in a very small way ... for these few moments, we are able to build down the hatred that is so much in the region," Barenboim said in English. In Arabic, he said: "I am very happy to be here with you."

Barenboim, 59, is musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and artistic director of the Deutsche Staatsoper Berlin.

He said many people have asked him why he was so eager to perform in Ramallah. "I tell them it's very simple," he said. "I'm not a politician, I don't have a plan to end the conflict. But I think the lesson we have to learn from the 20th century is that every human being... has to think of his responsibility as a human being and not always depend on the politicians and the government."

Three students performed at the master class.

Zeina Amar, 14, was so flustered that she forgot the name of the composer whose sonatina she played. "I made a lot of mistakes," she later said breathlessly, her hands shaking.

Another student who played for Barenboim said that tensions in the region and rules imposed by Israeli forces had put a damper on students' musical development.

"I've been playing the piano for six years. I was meant to start my seventh year at the conservatory, but because of the curfew I couldn't [take] my exams and my seventh year has now been delayed," said Celine Khoury, 15, who performed a Chopin waltz.

Palestinians in the West Bank have been subjected to strict travel limits during the past two years. Israel says the curfews and roadblocks are necessary to keep suicide bombers and other attackers out of Israel.

The restrictions have devastated the Palestinian economy and led to Palestinian charges that the real Israeli intention is to wear them down and defeat them.

Colin South, director of the Friends School, said Barenboim's presence was well-timed.

"It's extremely important to have him here," South said. "Anybody of this caliber who can come to the West Bank and play for us and be with us right now is just incredibly encouraging - and we're very grateful for him being here."

Barenboim is no stranger to controversy. He caused a furor last year when he included music by Richard Wagner, Adolf Hitler's favorite composer, in a program for Israel's premier cultural event, the Israel Festival.

Last week, Barenboim and US-based Palestinian writer and critic Edward Said were named the winners of Spain's Prince of Asturias Concord Prize for their efforts toward bringing peace to the Middle East. Since the early 1990s, the two men have run a summer workshop for young musicians from Israel and Arab countries in Germany, the United States, Spain, and other countries.

Jamie Tarabay, Ramallah
Published by the Associated Press © 2002 The Associated Press

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