Conductor Daniel Barenboim brought his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to Washington for the first time Wednesday night under the joint auspices of Washington Performing Arts and the Kennedy Center. The ensemble, taking its name from an 1819 book by Goethe, was the brainchild of Barenboim, who is Argentine Israeli, and the late Palestinian American intellectual Edward Said. They envisioned an orchestra consisting of young Israeli, Palestinian and other Arab musicians to promote “coexistence and intercultural dialogue.” Since 1999, the orchestra has shown itself to be a group that can hold its own in almost any artistic company, demonstrating as well just how potently successful musical activism can be.
The program consisted of two large-scale late Romantic orchestral blockbusters, Richard Strauss’s “Don Quixote” and the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky, preceded by a brief promotional video before the orchestra walked onstage.
West-Eastern Divan took a while to warm up. Once it did, it was clear that hard-edge, front-and-center winds and a none-too-refined string sound were part of the package. “Don Quixote” is a virtual cello concerto in the guise of a symphonic poem. Kian Soltani is a wonderful cellist with dazzling intonation and clarity of sound extending to the instrument’s highest register. His portrayal of Cervantes’s hero as conceived by Strauss was compellingly captured with humor and pathos.
Barenboim conducts a Tchaikovsky Fifth that, 40 years ago, might have been marketed as “Tchaikovsky without tears.” It’s an approach that brushes aside anything that could be labeled emotional excess or unseemly sensuality in favor of a robustly masculine concentration on formal structure, firmly etched lines, and no-nonsense textures. This was a businesslike, slightly impatient reading that observed scarcely a breathing pause between movements. Naturally, the immensity of Tchaikovsky’s genius can encompass myriad and varied interpretations, yet this one emerged as more aggressive than dramatic, more stentorian than expressive.