The two embraced triumphantly, waved to German president Joachim Gauck, and soaked in a five-minute standing ovation that was live-streamed around the world.
This wasn’t just any opening night, but the culmination of a mission Barenboim began 18 years ago: to create a conservatory to bring together young classical musicians from the Middle East and offer them a stage to take their first steps into the spotlight. The newly launched Barenboim-Said Academy is that school, and the adjacent Gehry-designed concert hall is that stage.
During a sweeping three-and-a-half-hour performance spanning Schubert, Mozart, and the late French composer Pierre Boulez–for whom the hall is named–a rotating mix of students and professionals showcased the venue’s 360-degree modular space and what it represents.
Among the cast were two Israeli horn players who had served in the Israel Defense Forces; a Jordanian pianist that Barenboim has mentored since he was 10; and Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian clarinetist who lives in New York and was recently stranded in Beirut following President Trump’s travel ban.
Like so much in music, the hall and Academy were inspired by a bold experiment. In 1999, Barenboim and the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said brought together a group of aspiring musicians from Israel, Palestine, and six countries in the Arab world to create an arts and humanities workshop.
While Barenboim taught students about music theory and technique by day (60 percent of whom had never played in an orchestra), Said led heated discussions about culture and politics at night.
What started as a one-time convention has since blossomed into the legendary West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which unites musicians from Israel, North Africa, and the Middle East. Under Barenboim’s direction, the orchestra has become a symbol of peace and possibility and tours the world each summer.
Now, thanks to a €20 million grant from the German Ministry for Culture and another €13.7 million from private donations, Barenboim and Said’s “experiment in coexistence” has found a permanent home in the heart of Berlin.
“The Barenboim-Said Academy is taking the spirit of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and elevating it to a new level,” Barenboim said at the Academy’s inauguration in December. “It’s more than I could have hoped for.”
Located in the former storage facility of the Berlin State Opera, the Academy is currently home to 37 students who are enrolled in one of two programs that Barenboim oversees: a four-year bachelor of music degree or a post-graduate artist diploma program.
In addition to intensive training in orchestral instruments, conducting, and composition, the curriculum also includes courses in philosophy, ethics, and literature. By the 2018-2019 academic year, the Academy will have expanded to 90 students—the most promising of whom may be invited to join Barenboim’s Divan Orchestra.
There are no tuition or course fees, students live together in shared housing, and they each receive a €735 ($775) monthly stipend.
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