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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Weimar Festival Seeks to Overcome the Past

WEIMAR, Germany -- A month devoted to music as a means of healing wounds of the Holocaust and the Middle East ended this week with the first concert on German soil by the Israeli Philharmonic playing with a German orchestra.

In an extraordinarily charged setting beneath the hill where the Buchenwald concentration camp once disgorged its daily horror, Zubin Mehta conducted more than 170 musicians from the Bavarian State Orchestra and the Israeli Philharmonic just hours after accompanying many of them on a visit Sunday to the former Nazi camp.

"The thought did run through my mind at the camp: How will Israelis be able to sit together with Germans this evening and play music?" Mehta said. "But I detected no feelings of resistance. And my feeling now is that if Jews and Germans can be together near Buchenwald after 50 years, one day there will be reconciliation with Arabs too."

That has been precisely the aim of another distinguished maestro, the director of the Berlin State Opera, Daniel Barenboim, who spent much of August in Weimar directing a workshop of young musicians drawn largely from Israel and Arab countries. Out of this experience, a new orchestra now seems set to emerge.

The German and Israeli orchestras under Mehta played Gustav Mahler's "Symphony No. 2" and "Resurrection," whose passage from the first movement is virtually a death march to the soaring finale, in which the victory of the spirit is affirmed, thus reflecting the themes of the evening.

Mehta, the longtime director of the Israeli Philharmonic and the recently appointed music director of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich, may be uniquely placed to promote German-Jewish understanding through music. In this light, Mehta described the performance as "thrilling," though less than perfect. A sharp drop in temperature as dusk gave way to night affected the pitch of the wind instruments.

But perfection was scarcely the point. As a century fades, one marked by the Nazis' industrialization of mass murder, Germany is anxious to complete its painful confrontation with the years of Adolf Hitler's rule. Weimar - named Europe's "cultural capital" for 1999, and home to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Buchenwald - has emerged as a focus of that task.

"This concert was about the past," Bernd Kauffmann, director of the yearlong Weimar festival, said. "It was about showing that even the past symbolized by Buchenwald can be overcome, and the Germans whose forebears murdered Jews can sit now with Israelis and play the music of a Bohemian-Jewish-Austrian-German composer."

For more than two weeks, Barenboim brought together young musicians - including Palestinians, Lebanese, Syrians, Israelis and Germans - to ponder their problems of identity and communication while exploring their shared passion for music. He said he was driven by the conviction that the Middle East is a very small area and that political solutions based on separation can never fully answer the area's problems.

"The issue, in the end, in the Middle East, is how to be together," Barenboim said. "And music is an ideal form of communication because it can bring an almost ecstatic togetherness and elevation while remaining essentially abstract."

The meeting of more than 70 musicians, most in their early 20s, was so successful that plans now call for forming a West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The name is taken from Goethe's book "The West-Eastern Divan," in which, late in life, he explored aspects of Arab and Islamic culture, their relationship to Western ideas and the need for tolerance.

Claude Chaloub, 24, a Lebanese violinist, said, "for the first two days it was rather tense, because I think we all had stereotypes about the other nationalities. He added, "but as we talked and played, these ideas tended to fade."

He said the visit to the Buchenwald camp, where more than 50,000 people died between 1937 and 1945, "did help me, up to a point, to understand the feelings of the Jews."

Ilya Isakovich, 22, an Israeli violinist, also said that the workshop had helped him overcome stereotypes - in his case, a conviction that the musicians from Arab countries would not be of a high enough standard.

The musicians both said they were helped by the presence of Edward Said, a Palestinian writer and intellectual, who joined daily discussions after rehearsals and after the visit to Buchenwald.

"For some of the Arab musicians, it was probably the first time they had heard the word 'Holocaust' or 'concentration camp,'" Barenboim said. "Said was invaluable in explaining that an understanding of Jewish history was essential, whatever current problems Arabs have with Jews."