The musician builds on his parents’ legacy with the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble

Featured photo by Marcus Höhn

Music can go way beyond mere cultural enjoyment; it can build cross-cultural connections. Violinist Michael Barenboim’s parents serve as role models for that idea.

Twenty years ago, his father, Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, started the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Palestinian academic Edward Said. The two friends brought together musicians from across the Middle East for performances and opportunities to get to know one another across political divides.

At nearly the same time, his mother, pianist Elena Bashkirova, started the annual Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival to spotlight performers from different countries. She later extended that idea with the Intonations festival at the Jewish Museum Berlin, which also brings together musicians from various international orchestras.

The 35-year-old Michael Barenboim supports his parents’ initiatives through his own performances. He is the music director of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, leading the chamber group of orchestra musicians as they launch their first tour as a string octet.

The ensemble will appear Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Rackham Auditorium in Ann Arbor as presented by the University Musical Society. The varied program includes works by Brahms, Tartini, Mendelssohn and Benjamin Attahir, a French Lebanese composer.

Members of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, with musical director Michael Barenboim, center.
Members of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, with musical director Michael Barenboim, center. Courtesy of Michael Barenboim

“I think [this program] gives quite a nice overview because it has a nice arc of string pieces over many centuries,” said Barenboim, whose selection choices, legendary works and a newly commissioned piece continue family sensibilities of combining cultures and looking ahead.

“The Attahir piece, ‘Jawb (meaning ‘Crossing’) for String Quartet,’ is very different and constantly developed. It has quite an interesting structure by going forward, never back.”
Barenboim, who teaches violin and chamber music at the Barenboim-Said Academy, also started by his father, developed the ensemble in the spirit of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, only with a more musician-focused format.

The idea of the ensemble is to provide concertgoers a more intimate atmosphere to experience the musicians, said Barenboim, the orchestra’s concertmaster.

“If you hear a big symphony, whatever it is, you maybe will not have a connection with the cellist, violist or whoever,” he says. “We give the public an opportunity to have a closer contact and be more exposed individually than just a collective.”

The program, he said, allows members of the ensemble to shine and show their musical abilities. Plus, a chamber group can more easily travel than an orchestra because of its smaller size.

Barenboim will play in Ann Arbor alongside musicians including Israeli cellist Assif Binness, Israeli violist Miriam Manasherov, Egyptian violist Sindy Mohamed, Jordanian violinist Samir Naser Abdel Hamid Obaido, Palestinian violinist Yamen Saadi, Armenian cellist Astrig Spidak Siranossian and Israeli violinist David Strongin. The musicians have all been playing in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for several years.

“We have a certain affinity and understanding of each other musically,” Barenboim said. “When we start rehearsing, it immediately sounds like we’ve already been playing whatever we’re rehearsing. For me, it’s a great joy and musical understanding we all have together, and that’s very special.”

Barenboim’s personal venture into instrumental music began when he started playing the violin at age 7. He said he was drawn to the instrument’s beautiful, melodic sound before becoming fascinated by its capacity to allow so many ways of playing despite having only four strings.

Barenboim appreciates that both he and the orchestra continue to learn from his father whenever they are in rehearsal or in concert. He also values times when father and son can perform together in programs apart from the orchestra.

The two have played piano trios together, including full cycles of Beethoven’s piano trios with the cellist Kian Soltani. “It was a great experience, and I’m lucky to do that sort of thing,” Barenboim said

Barenboim also plays with his wife, pianist Natalia Pegarkova-Barenboim, who will perform a solo concert in Berlin featuring works by women composers in celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8.

The couple encourage the musical abilities of their two children, a 5-year-old son interested in the cello and a 3-year-old daughter who prefers violin at the moment.

Barenboim said members of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra are transformed by the new people they meet and get a chance to make music with.

“I’ve seen many people with many different views and opinions,” he said. “What’s common to all of them is that they come out richer with much more understanding.”

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble will perform at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 26, at the Rackham Auditorium, 915 E. Washington, Ann Arbor. General tickets start at $30 with student discounts available. (734) 764-2538.


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