Barenboim-Said music academy rocked by Mideast conflict
Berlin (AFP) – On stage, the musicians of the Barenboim-Said Akademie in Berlin still play in perfect harmony. But inside, they are reeling.
The recent escalation of fighting between Israel and Hamas poses the greatest existential challenge yet for the music academy, founded to build bridges between young Israeli and Arab musicians.
"The situation has always been complex, but this is the biggest test since the academy was created in 2016," Michael Barenboim, a violinist and dean of the school, told AFP.
The Barenboim-Said Akademie was born out of a long partnership between Barenboim's father, the Israeli-Argentine pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim, and the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, who died in 2003.
Students at the school receive a broad musical education but also attend classes in philosophy, history and literature in English.
Tuition and accommodation are free for the first two years and competition is tough, with only one in three or four applicants granted a place, depending on their instrument.
The current contingent of 80 students includes 17 Israelis and six Palestinians as well as young musicians from Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Syria, and Turkey.
'Our hearts are heavy'
"Emotionally, it's extremely complicated for them" in a context where "everyone knows someone who knows someone" directly affected by the conflict, said Michael Barenboim, 38.
Israel has heavily bombarded Gaza since Hamas gunmen stormed across the border on October 7, killing 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping over 220 others, according to Israeli officials.
The Hamas-run health ministry said Friday that Israeli strikes on Gaza had killed 7,326 people, mainly civilians and many of them children.
A recent concert in Berlin gave the academy's students the opportunity to express their emotions.
Before the lights went down, flyers containing a message from the students were distributed to the audience.
"Our hearts are heavy; our minds are elsewhere with every single person affected by the devastating situation in Palestine and Israel," the message read.
"It is very difficult for many of us to be playing a concert right now. But even in this darkest hour, we will still follow in the footsteps of our founders, Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said," it said.
"May our music bring us together, may it heal a little piece of our hearts. At the end of the day, all we can do is hope for peace, freedom, and the safety of everyone."
A minute's silence was held before the auditorium was filled with the sounds of music by Prokofiev, Beethoven, and Wagner.
Barenboim senior, 80, who rarely performs in public today because of poor health, was conducting.
A 19-year-old Palestinian student, who did not want to give his name, spoke of a "hard atmosphere" in the school.
"It affects all of us," he told AFP.
The young musician, who has been studying at the academy for two years, is from the West Bank and has friends in Gaza.
"There are lots of talks, we are trying to listen. We agree and disagree. It's not very easy," he said.
The school has provided additional psychological support via therapists, set up helplines in Hebrew and Arabic, and given the students permission to skip classes when necessary.
"Some needed to withdraw. Others, on the other hand, immediately sought contact with others," Michael Barenboim said.
"Many students are constantly on their mobile phones and in contact with their family and friends," said Regula Rapp, rector of the academy.
Israel's military has said it has increased its strikes on Gaza significantly, with the Islamist group Hamas responding with what it called "salvos of rockets" aimed at Israel.
Rapp said she hoped the "daily routine of lessons, music and instrument practice" would help provide the young musicians with a sense of stability.
Daniel Barenboim and Said founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a project to encourage rapprochement between young Israeli and Arab musicians, in 1999.
The orchestra has been a huge success and still gives concerts around the world.
For Michael Barenboim, the ultimate culmination of his father's vision would be for the academy's ensembles to be able to perform in all of the students' home countries.
"At the moment, we can't play in any country apart from Turkey, because of passports and pressure," he said.
"It's a dream that's a long way off," he added. "I don't know if I'll live to see it."