Barenboim peace effort is a classic

By Christine Spolar
Tribune foreign correspondent

September 11, 2002

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Perhaps only Daniel Barenboim could give Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" a rebel twist.

On a small school stage Tuesday, Barenboim kept the melody straight but there was no mistaking that the renowned pianist and music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had ventured into the heart of the embattled West Bank to play an unlikely protest song.

"People ask me all over the world, `Why do you need to go to Ramallah?'" Barenboim said after excerpting 10 lush minutes of the classical piece on an old Steinway grand.

"I say: `It's very simple. I'm not a politician, but the lesson we have to learn from the 20th Century is that every single person has to think of his responsibility. ...'"

"I think what I can do is play music and ... for these few moments, we are able to break down the hatred," he said.

Barenboim's performance was a midday surprise for about 200 students of the private Friends School in Ramallah and a well-kept secret from the Israeli government, which has banned Israeli citizens from entering the Palestinian territories during the current two-year cycle of violence.

Barenboim, 59, who was born in Argentina and raised in Israel, is an Israeli citizen.

March session canceled

He had hoped to perform in Ramallah in March as a musical plea to end the spiraling violence in the region. That session was called off as Israeli troops embarked on unprecedented incursions in the West Bank in a quest to stop Palestinian terror attacks.

Israeli authorities then said they could not guarantee Barenboim's safety amid some of the worst bloodshed in years.

This week, Barenboim, visiting Jerusalem for three chamber music concerts, made his own provisions for cutting through the unrelenting military lockdown. Barenboim quietly hitched a ride Tuesday morning from a German diplomatic vehicle.

Barenboim, who is also director of the Berlin State Opera, later shied away from questions about how he scooted unnoticed past military checkpoints leading into the West Bank. Palestinian organizers, clearly pleased by the subterfuge in the name of art and peace, said soldiers simply never asked for Barenboim's papers when the car passed through a roadblock near Bir Zeit University.

"I consider his ability to go through the checkpoint as an act of resistance," activist Mustafa Barghouti said with a wide smile. "It shows the children that nothing is impossible."

Israelis confounded

Students cheered when the short, gray-haired master took the stage, cluttered with news photographers and television crews.

Hours later, the Israeli government was far less enthusiastic about the Barenboim fanfare. "We have a war going on here," said one senior official. "I'm not even going to address that."

Over the years, Barenboim has captivated and confounded Israelis with his musical and political persuasions. In 1967, he played for Israeli troops at the start of the Six-Day War. He returned in 1973, wartime again, to do the same. Nearly 20 years later, he clapped on a gas mask to conduct the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra during the Persian Gulf war.

Still, Barenboim riled some in the Israeli public in 1999 when he became the first Israeli to perform at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. The same year, he began holding summer master classes for Israelis and Arabs.

Wagner controversy

Last year, Barenboim sparked a national controversy when he broke an Israeli taboo and added an encore by Richard Wagner--Hitler's favorite composer--to the Israeli Festival in Jerusalem. Barenboim asserted that the encore was a demonstration of choice in an open, democratic society. Some Israeli politicians branded him a cultural persona non grata.

On Tuesday, Barenboim insisted he was not sending a political message but rather "a very private message" to appeal for reason from both sides in the conflict. The audience at Friends School was shushed into silence with the idea that a foreigner--a famous one at that--thought the problems in Ramallah were important enough to take notice.

"All the time, you feel you are different than all other children," said 9th grader Natali Najjar, 14. This spring, Najjar saw Israeli soldiers troop into her hilltop home twice to take it over as a lookout. She watched her summer vacation disappear under a military lockdown. Now, she still has to pass checkpoints to attend school.

"Today, he's feeling with us," she said softly. "It makes us feel good."

Three students--all piano students at the nearby National Conservatory--had the unnerving opportunity to play for the master. Barenboim wanted a chance, he said, to "stretch out a hand as a musician and hear about your life."

`This meant so much'

Fifteen-year-old Celine Khoury said she trembled when he called her first to the stage to play a Chopin waltz.

Settling in next to Barenboim, she said, the music was all that mattered.

"All this meant so much to us," Khoury said. "It's an honor. It's a pleasure. It may seem like a little thing to break the standoff between Palestinians and Israelis but it's something. You know, they try to stop us from learning. They try to stop us from working. But they can't stop us from music."

Copyright (c) 2002, Chicago Tribune