Harmony from the Middle East

Jodi Genshaft

Saleem Abboud-Ashkar arrived nearly two hours late to his first meeting with conductor Daniel Barenboim in February 1999. Driving toward the West Bank town of Ramallah, the young Palestinian said his delay was a typical political problem in the Middle East: Israeli soldiers had blocked the entrance, limiting access to the Palestinian-occupied area.

That night, Barenboim extended a serious gesture of compassion by playing his first piano recital in the West Bank. When the Jewish maestro called on Abboud-Ashkar, a Palestinian pianist, to join him in “Four Hands Schubert,” it was more than just music.

“His intention with that recital, to work through music into cultural contact, into human contact, I already understood that he had really long-range plans,” said Abboud-Ashkar. “He is deeply concerned with the situation in Israel and about the conflict. As he always says, ‘We can’t wait for the politicians.'”

On Monday and Tuesday, while violence swelled along the West Bank, Barenboim led Israeli and Arab students in two musical performances. And although the West-Eastern Divan Workshop for Young Musicians culminated with the recitals held in Pick-Staiger Concert Hall and Chicago’s Symphony Center the program’s importance lay in the three weeks of rehearsals that preceded them.

“Music, as a common element, can bring seemingly opposed or disparate people together,” said Cliff Colnot, resident conductor for the Civic Orchestra of Chicago. “Music is a good vehicle for getting people to come to know each other as people without incendiary rhetoric and political postulating.”

The Program

Held in the United States for the first time since Barenboim launched it in 1999, the workshop, hosted by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the School of Music, united 73 young musicians from Israel, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Germany and the United States. About 300 students ages 15 to 27 auditioned before program director Mat