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Music for a better world

by Philip Campbell

Conductor Daniel Barenboim led the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, featuring cello soloist Kian Soltani, for Cal Performances. Photo: Manuel Vaca
Conductor Daniel Barenboim led the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, featuring cello soloist Kian Soltani, for Cal Performances. Photo: Manuel Vaca  

Two concerts with similar intentions brought opposite sides of the Bay in synch recently with the belief that music is a human right. It may be preaching to the choir, but it is still important to be reminded: the universal language of music extends far beyond the bubble.

A visiting orchestra and the West Coast premiere of a touching composition, both demonstrating hope and forgiveness, seemed perfectly timed as a turbulent year comes to a close and the world still rages.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra made its first appearance in Berkeley's Zellerbach Hall last week after close to a decade of trying. Legendary pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, who lists himself a citizen of Argentina, Israel, Palestine, and Spain, and the equally controversial late Palestinian-American writer and scholar Edward Said founded the orchestra in 1999 as a workshop for Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians.

Aiming to replace ignorance with education and understanding, and to remove dangerous demonization, the workshop brought participants together to live and work as equals. The experiment was intended to produce a one-time event, but it has since evolved into an ongoing testament to the bonding power of music.

Such lofty goals seem nearly impossible, but "a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step," and seeing the large, fresh-faced ensemble could only make the capacity Cal Performances audience feel gratitude. A feeling of shared optimism was heartwarming.

The program itself was a little scrappy, especially during the first half, but the level of playing was high, and the musicians showed obvious commitment. Barenboim elicited the sound of a promising youth orchestra in a blurry rendition of Richard Strauss' tone poem "Don Quixote."

Cellist Kian Soltani, portraying the title character, and violist Miriam Manasherov, as his loyal squire Sancho Panza, gave focus to a rather disjointed reading. After tilting at windmills, Soltani sounded sweet-toned and rich in an encore, "The Swan" by Saint-Saens.

The second half was stronger, with Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony showcasing some fine playing by the horns and textured depth in the strings. Elgar's anthem-like "Nimrod" from "Enigma" Variations was the perfect encore.

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony performed Tilson Thomas From the Diary of Anne Frank with mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard narrating. Photo: Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony  

Dear Diary

Last week, another concert celebrating hope and humanism warmed Davies Symphony Hall. San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the first SFS performances of his own "From the Diary of Anne Frank" (1990).

Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard proved a great choice to speak the deeply affecting thoughts and prayers of the beloved 13-year-old girl. Originally commissioned by UNICEF for Audrey Hepburn to premiere at MTT's New World Symphony, "From the Diary of Anne Frank" is well-suited to Leonard's firm, womanly tone. Sweetly innocent but also remarkably mature, her interpretation made it easy to imagine how Anne might have sounded had her life not been cut so horribly short.

MTT provides a soundtrack that clearly shows his musical influences, ranging from Copland to Bernstein, but still makes a personal statement. The evocative score glistens and surges with emotion and convincing insight. One would have to be made of wood not to respond.

"For in spite of everything, I still believe people are really good at heart." Anne's words will endure because we want to believe as well. Hearing them again was refreshingly inspirational. The recent performances were recorded for future release on SFS Media.

The second half of the program was given to MTT's crisp and rhythmically taut handling of Beethoven's Symphony No. 3, "Eroica." The superbly responsive SFS has previously performed and recorded this electrifying interpretation. It capped the concert with a sense of elation.

This week, MTT conducts the Beethoven Ninth at DSH. Part of the two-week celebration of the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the concerts have been called, "Music as a Human Right." Can we offer an amen?



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