Mr. Prime Minister,
Mr. Chairman of the Foundation and of the Jury,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It’s a great honor for me and my fellow musicians of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to be here today to accept the Empress Theophano Prize on behalf of my father, Daniel Barenboim. When he was named recipient of this award earlier this year, in acknowledgement of his efforts to promote dialogue and understanding through his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, he very enthusiastically accepted. He felt this to be a recognition not only of his own work but of every musician in the orchestra. My father was very much looking forward to coming to Thessaloniki to receive this award in person here in the Rotunda, this emblematic monument of multicultural references: Roman, Byzantine, Orthodox, Ottoman, Greek. Unfortunately, a serious health issue prevents him from being here with all of you today, and he therefore asks you to please accept his heartfelt regrets.
The Empress Theophano Prize was created in memory of a remarkable Greek woman who went on to become the Empress of the Holy German Empire; and it is presented in Thessaloniki, a city with such historic and cultural symbolism, which stands at the crossroads of East and West. To my father, both of these aspects seem to be very close to everything the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra stands for: to initiate a dialogue between cultures and between human beings. What’s more, my colleagues, my father, and I feel particularly humbled to be the third recipients of this prize, following President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen, who was recognized for her role as part of the European peace project that is the ERASMUS student program, and Dr. Özlem Türeci and Dr. Uğur Şahin, who showed us a way out of the global pandemic by developing the first Covid vaccine.
This year’s prize recognizes the role of art in intercultural dialogue. My father has been passionate about this idea for many decades, and he shared this passion with Edward Said, the Palestinian intellectual and literary scholar. The two first met in 1991 and quickly struck up a close friendship. In 1999 in Weimar, they created what became the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra—an ensemble of young musicians from Israel, Palestine, and other Arab countries. Intended as a one-time experimental workshop, the project immediately took on a life of its own and developed in ways that neither of the two founders ever expected. By being part of this group, each and every one of these musicians sets an example of openness, dialogue, and the will to listen to each other. Especially regarding the Middle East, this is not a question of agreeing with the narrative of someone with a different national, political, or personal background, but of the indispensable need to accept its legitimacy. In that sense, with every concert this orchestra plays, it sends out a call for mutual understanding. It is in this spirit that all of us feel extremely honored to receive this prize.
Since the death of Edward Said in 2003, my father has continued the work they began together and built the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra into what it is today: not only a respected part of the international music scene but a beacon of humanism in the face of hostility and war. Every time this orchestra goes on stage, it promotes an alternative model of thinking for the Middle East and beyond, based on dialogue and exchange. It fights ignorance and defies an accepted status quo of constant conflict and misery. To give just one example, in 2005 the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra did something that was impossible at the time, and actually still is: comprised of musicians from countries like Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Israel, it played a concert in Ramallah, an experience which will remain ingrained in our memory for the rest of our lives, musicians and audience alike. This, like many other events, would not have been possible without the continuous efforts of Tabaré Perlas, General Manager of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from the very beginning.
Edward Said was convinced that the role of the public intellectual must be to advance human freedom and knowledge, to challenge the status quo, and to act as a lookout for the rest of society. As members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, we have had the privilege of engaging in many discussions with academics, writers, and activists from the Middle East who are deeply committed to this vision. They have been an inspiration to all of us, and these exchanges have led us to acknowledge again and again a basic truth: the better one understands the other, the more one can expect to be accepted by them, and vice versa.
One of the aspects that make the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra possible is the fact that music doesn’t contain limited associations as words do. It teaches us that there is nothing that doesn’t include its parallel or opposite—like the work you’ll hear today, the Octet by Felix Mendelssohn, which combines intimacy and openness, chamber music and symphony, introversion and extroversion. It brings the grand gesture to the small room, as well as the delicate nuance to the big stage. I am pleased and proud to be joined today by my colleagues of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, a group which enables us to represent the message of the orchestra in a more intimate setting.
By itself, music may not be able to solve any problems, but it can teach us to think in a way that is a school for life. This very idea is also at the center of our work at the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin, which grew out of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. The Akademie opened in 2016 and offers a comprehensive education for approximately 80 young musicians primarily from countries of the Middle East and Northern Africa. What sets it apart from other conservatories is its focus on the humanities—in addition to music, all students attend classes in history, literature, and philosophy. They learn to listen to each other and develop their own ideas, which are then founded on the strong basis of rational thought. The goal is to train excellent musicians who are also curious, open-minded, and well-educated members of our society. In my role as Dean and Professor for Chamber Music, I take particular pleasure in witnessing the wonderful development of these young talents. Of the eight members of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble performing for you today, five are Akademie alumni.
My father has often stated that the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra is not and was never intended to be a political project but a humanistic one, just as he has always been convinced that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot have a military solution but only one of mutual acceptance between human beings. It is my hope and wish that this prize may inspire all of us who are assembled here today to have the courage and vision that is needed to make sure that dialogue and understanding will always prevail against small-mindedness and prejudice.
And now, we have the pleasure of thanking you for this prize in the way we know best: