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The Jewish Journal (October 21, 2005)

A Lesson in Harmony: Peace Through Music

by Susan Jacobs

Music might be the bridge that unites Israelis with Palestinians. At the very least, experts believe, music can help teach people from divergent cultures how to live together harmoniously.

Conductor Daniel Barenboim, composer Yuval Ron and Brandeis professor Judtih Eissenberg (among others across the nation and globe) are working to build Middle East peace through music.

“Music ‘sings’ of the diversity of the many cultures of the world. It can be a profound entry into a deeper exploration of the multiculturalism we embrace and are also challenged by”, says Eissenberg. The Brandeis faculty member is director of MusicUnitesUs, an organization founded in 2003 to further the understanding and appreciation of diverse cultures through music.

This week, MusicUnitesUS hosts the Los Angeles-based Yuval Ron Ensemble for four days worth of workshops, concerts and classes in Waltham. The Ensemble is comprised of Israeli, Lebanese, Armenian, French and American musicians from decidedly different backgrounds whose common mission is to build peace through music.

On Saturday, Oct. 22 at Brandeis, the Yuval Ron Ensemble presents a performance open to the public entitled, The Mystical Music of the Middle East. The intercultural collaboration unites the traditions of Judaism, Sufism (Islamic mysticism) and Christianity, featuring Sufi songs from Turkey, Jewish prayers from Morocco, Yemen and Israel, and Armenian chants. Aziz, a Sufi, will perform the sacred Whirling Dervish dance.

Formed in 1999. the ensemble is led by Israeli-born composer/producer Yuval Ron, a 1989 graduate of the Berklee College of Music. He has recorded five solo albums and composed numerous film, television, modern dance and theatrical scores.

The ensemble’s latest release, “Tree of Life”, intertwines music from Morocco, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, Armenia, Andalusia, and Bukhara (Uzbekistan). The songs are sung in Hebrew, Arabic, Ladino (a Spanish-Jewish language) and Turkish. MusicUnitesUS invited Yuval Ron to perform at Brandeis because of his commitment to using music to foster an understanding of Middle Eastern cultures and religions. MusicUnitesUS is a Brandeis program that encompasses an intercultural residency, a public school education program, and a world music concert.

“The Yuval Ron Ensemble represents a vision of hope about the possibility of peace in the Middle East”, says Eissenberg, who in addition to being a Brandeis professor is a violinist who performs with the Lydian String Quartet. “We wanted to address the conflict in the Middle East by bringing the power of the arts to the peace table.”

“The Yuval Ron Ensemble weaves together the music of cultures that are often seen as being at odds”, agrees Cynthia Cohen, co-chair of the Intercultural Residency Series at Brandeis. “Their evocative performance invites us to experience these three traditions brought into harmony, resonating with each other and inspiring a yearning for reconciliation.” Daniel Barenboim shares a similar passion for bringing opposing cultures together through music. The 63-year-old conductor was born in Argentina to parents of Jewish-Russian descent. When he was ten, the musically gifted youth and his family moved to Israel where he witnessed firsthand the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.

When he was older and had established himself as an internationally acclaimed conductor and musical director, Barenboim partnered with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to spearhead a revolutionary experiment.

In 1999, they invited young musicians from Israel and the Middle East to spend several weeks together during the summer studying music and reflecting on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Young people, who might otherwise never have met, shared music stands and living quarters. They ate together, played soccer with each other, dialogued, and created music. The results were profound.

The focus of the West-Eastern Divan Workshop and Orchestra was to initiate harmony, not debate political ideology. Although Said died in 2003, Barenboim has continued the project each summer with other musicians including the celebrated cellist Yo Yo Ma. Hundreds of Arab, Israeli and Western students have participated.

The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra has toured each summer since 2002, performing to enthusiastic reviews in the United States, Europe and South America. The 2005 tour culminated in late August with a concert in Ramallah, which Barenboim viewed as a declaration of reconciliation and harmony.

Barenboim, who has worked as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1991 but plans to leave at the end of this season, was recorded leading the 2004 ensemble in concert in Geneva. On this recently-released CD, the young musicians perform serious, dramatic selections such as Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, the Overture from Verdi’s La Forza del Destino, and Sibelius’ Valse Triste. Warner Classics has packaged the CD with “Lessons in Harmony”, a DVD documentary about Barenboim’s peace-making project.

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