West-Eastern Divan Ensemble showcases intimate rarities at Arsht

By Lawrence Budmen

MIchael Barenboim (center) and the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble performed at the Arsht Center Saturday night.

In 1999 conductor Daniel Barenboim and the late Palestinian-Egyptian literary scholar Edward Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, an ensemble composed of Israeli and Arab musicians from the countries of the Middle East. The project, now based in Berlin, has grown to include a music academy and a special Frank Gehry-designed concert hall. 

In recent years, a chamber contingent has toured widely in Europe and the United States under the leadership of violinist Michael Barenboim, the founder’s son. On Saturday night, the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble took the stage of Miami’s Arsht Center with an audacious program that avoided familiar warhorses of the chamber music repertoire.

Barenboim and cellist Astrig Siranossian opened the program with Ravel’s Sonata for Violin and Cello. While the composer’s Gallic touch is clearly evident in this 1922 opus, the writing is more austere, the musical lines spare and unembellished. In the opening Allegro, Barenboim demonstrated a large, sonorous palette but he could restrain his vibrant sound to blend skillfully with Siranossian’s cello. Her sizable and flexible instrumental range proved well attuned to the, at times, dissonant score.

With pizzicato backing, the French country dance of the second movement was given fleetly bowed panache. The third movement Lent is the score’s heart, a long-limbed threnody, shaped by Barenboim and Siranossian with spacious beauty. Bows bounced off the strings in the concluding Vif, with vigorous attacks in Ravel’s most fierce pages.

Dvořák’s Terzetto finds this most Czech of composers alternating between bucolic joy and intense drama. Barenboim, violist Miriam Manasherov and violinist Mohamed Hilber sounded as one in the endless flow of melody in the score’s first two movements. The third movement recalls the aura of Dvořák’s Slavonic Dances and the players’ folkish articulation engendered irresistible melodic bounce. In the central waltz-like section, they played with the casual fluency of café musicians. The dramatic dialogue between instruments that opens the finale leads to a tense and acerbic Allegro. Maintaining whipcrack momentum up through the enlivening coda, the Divan threesome delivered a virtuosic reading.

Barenboim switched to the viola for Paul Hindemith’s Trauermusik, joined by a quartet of his colleagues. He dedicated the performance to the victims of the recent earthquake in Syria and Turkey and asked the audience to observe a moment of silence at the conclusion before applauding. 

Written in 1936 in the aftermath of the death of King George V, this brief work is solemn and reverent, a fine example of Hindemith’s creative mastery. Producing a deep sound from his instrument, Barenboim transmitted the music’s tragedy and sorrow with keen musicianship.

Following intermission, Barenboim, Obaido, Mansherov, Siranossian, violinists Mohamed Hiber and Daniel Strongin, violist Sindy Mohamed and cellist Assif Biness collaborated in a performance of Enescu’s Octet in C Major. Composed at the turn of the twentieth century in 1900, the piece represents Enescu’s turn from romanticism to modernism. 

The opening movement is Brahmsian in mood and tone. After a strongly unified start, the ensemble became unmoored, but the players eventually found their way back.  In numerous solo passages, the aristocratic phrasing and elevated musicality of Mohamed’s viola took special prominence. Following the calm songfulness of that opening, the Bartokian astringency of the scherzo (second movement) comes as a shock to the senses. The eight players were fully in command of the constant changes of meter.

Barenboim’s violin resounded gently in the lyrical vocalise of the third movement. The finale returns to jagged, overlapping waves of rhythm  from opposite sides of the double quartet. Again Mohamed’s viola solos were marked by intense brilliance, accuracy of intonation and intensity of expression. Barenboim may have set a record for shedding hairs from his bow in one evening. Throughout all four works on the program, he was constantly tearing and throwing away fractured pieces. 

While the Arsht Center audience in the past has been noted for applauding between movements and even during and over the music, on this occasion they were admirably attentive and waited until the conclusion of each score to respond.

The 2023-2024 Arsht Center classical series will feature the Detroit Symphony Orchestra under Jader Bignamini (February 15, 2024), the Rotterdam Philharmonic under Lahav Shani (March 7), Joshua Bell with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (March 21) and a recital by Lang Lang (April 16). arshtcenter.org


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Sun Mar 5, 2023
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