It is with great joy that I present today the “Empress Theophano” Prize, which this year focuses on art, to a personality of the stature and outreach of Daniel Barenboim. A leading conductor, whom we have had the pleasure of enjoying in Greece, with perhaps more recordings than anyone else; a superb pianist; music director of many orchestras and festivals, the main one being the Staatskapelle in Berlin, inspirer of “the mixture of awe and energetic courage” with which its members approach music and shaper of its captivating sound; and, at the same time, a great humanist, a brave intellectual, a deeply democratic citizen. An exuberant, outstanding figure, not only endowed with extraordinary gifts – a perfect memory, brilliant virtuosity, an irresistible way of winning over an audience, but above all an enormous love of music, “music as a way of life”’, as he puts it – but also capable of defying and overcoming conventions and barriers. For Daniel Barenboim has never hesitated to take highly courageous public stands: he became an outspoken advocate for the performance of Wagner’s music in Israel, believing that cultural life cannot be governed by taboos and prohibitions that oppose a critical understanding of works of art and their creators; he fought the lingering presence of anti-Semitism in Germany’s cultural policy; he made public his discomfort with Israel’s expansionist activity; and he became the first and most prominent Israeli musician ever to perform in the West Bank, at Bir Zeit University, at the suggestion of his friend and constant interlocutor Edward Said.
Daniel Barenboim’s close friendship with the prematurely lost cultural critic Edward Said, this profound analyst of the relationship between culture and society, especially in relation to issues of Orientalism – a field in which he was a pioneer – and musician, manifested itself in a particularly fruitful way in 1999, when Weimar was the cultural capital of Europe and was celebrating the 250th anniversary of Goethe’s birth. It was precisely in the spirit of this multi-dimensional writer and thinker – who, discovering Persian poetry, wrote an astonishing series of poems entitled “West-östlicher Divan”, asserting that art is nothing but a journey to the Other –, that the two friends assembled an orchestra of Arab and Israeli musicians and gave it this very title. Denying both the current trend of “cultural intolerance”, as the conductor so aptly defined it, i.e. the separation of people on the basis of ethnicity or religion and the rejection of the cultural values that define them, they both took a decisive step, through music, towards cooperation, coexistence, intercultural dialogue and a balanced approach to collective passions. Twenty-three years since its foundation, with a rich concert schedule and collaborations with such notable soloists as An-Sophie Mutter, Yo Yo Ma and Marta Argerich, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, based on the idea of equality, solidarity and justice, proves not only that art builds bridges, but also that common purpose breaks down arbitrary generalisations, prejudices and rivalries.
Daniel Barenboim, speaking of the first Divan meetings, gives a typical and moving example. He refers to a young Syrian who, on entering the orchestra, distrusted every Israeli, considering them to be the embodiment of evil, a source of suffering for the Arabs. “This same child”, the conductor recounts in the book “Parallels and Paradoxes”, in which his conversations about music, literature and politics with Edward Said are recorded, “found himself sharing a music stand with an Israeli cellist. They were trying to play the same note, to play with the same stroke of the bow, with the same dynamic, with the same sound, with the same expression. They were trying to do something together. It’s as simple as that. They were trying to do something together, something about which both cared, about which they were both passionate. Well, having achieved that one note, they already couldn’t look at each other the same way, with suspicion and hostility, because they had shared a common experience.”
This communion of experience lies at the heart of democracy, according to Barenboim. “If you wish to learn how to live in a democratic society, then you would do well to play in an orchestra,” he wrote in a March 2001 article in the New York Review of Books. “For, within an orchestra, you know when to lead and when to follow. You leave space for others and at the same time you have no inhibitions about claiming a place for yourself.”
Today we celebrate the great artist, the fully fledged political figure, the fierce defender of human rights, Daniel Barenboim. The “Empress Theophano” Prize is only a small recognition of his many contributions to world culture, to peace and understanding between peoples. We honour him with respect and we thank him.