When Argentinian-born Israeli pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim leads a world-class orchestra, the performance immediately becomes a high profile event. When Barenboim conducts the music of Richard Wagner, the event transcends the boundaries of art and enters into the realm of politics, with ramifications that stretch from the Middle East right to New York City.
In 2001 when Barenboim decided to conduct Wagner's music in Jerusalem at the annual Israel Festival his decision was met with severe criticism from many prominent Israelis, including Ephraim Zuroff, the director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, who said that what Barenboim did amounted to "cultural rape." The state of Israel has always had an unwritten ban on Wagner's music because he was Adolf Hitler's favorite composer and because Wagner's music was instrumental in the inspiration of the Nazi cultural propaganda that sprang in the decade of the 1930's and on through the War Years.
If you remove Barenboim's outer layers of virtuoso pianist and world-class conductor, however you will find in his inner core the role of humanitarian and peacemaker. As Oliver Mark reported in Time magazine:
"A classical-music conductor taking the podium always becomes a peacemaker of sorts. The central mission of conducting, after all, is to dispel discord and bring dozens of competing voices into concert. The Israeli maestro Daniel Barenboim, 65, sees in this act the opportunity to bring a deeper kind of harmony to one of the most violent and vociferous regions in the world: the Middle East."
One of the maestro's current projects is the West-Eastern Divan Youth Orchestra, an organization that he formed with the American-Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. The ensemble draws together Israeli and Arab musicians, many from disputed territories. The orchestra under Barenboim's direction has played in Weimar, Germany under the shadow of the ruins of the Buchenwald Nazi death camp, as well as in Ramallah in the West Bank, where the musicians played under armed guard.
In January of this year it was reported that the conductor was granted Palestinian citizenship. He is believed to be the first person in the world to possess both Israeli and Palestinian passports.
Now he finally comes to New York to make his debut at the Metropolitan Opera conducting a stellar cast in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde. The same work with which he opened La Scala, in Milan this season. It is not the first time that New York will hear his "Tristan." He also conducted the work back in the fall of 2001 in a concert performance at Carnegie Hall.
His MET debut tonight may not have the political gravitas of his daring historic concerts in the Middle East, however we must not forget that New York is home to the largest Jewish population outside of Israel and that when it comes to the music of Wagner and particularly when the anti-semitic aspect of Wagner the man is brought to the forefront, emotions can and do run high. It promises to be a very interesting and important debut tonight.