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Maestro Daniel Barenboim brought his troupe of young Arab and Israeli classical musicians to Geneva on Friday for a concert dedicated to the late Palestinian-American academic Edward Said and the contentious choice of Jerusalem as this year's "Arab Cultural Capital."
In a news conference that featured the iconoclastic Israeli conductor's usual combination of humor and gravitas, art and politics, Barenboim said his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra offered another way of examining ideals of justice, humaneness and understanding that are often lacking in the Middle East conflict.
The 10-year-old orchestra founded by Barenboim and Said includes Israeli and Palestinian musicians, as well as performers from Arab countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, and non-Arab states Turkey and Iran.
Barenboim said it was fitting that such a diverse group celebrate the Arab League's naming of Jerusalem as a cultural capital, even if the choice has angered Israeli authorities who say the entire city is the Jewish state's undivided and eternal capital.
"The Arab World is not just Muslims. It's also Christians and Jews," said the Argentinian-born Barenboim, who moved to Israel when he was 9, but has become wellknown in recent years for his outspoken support of Palestinian statehood and criticism of the Israeli government.
"West Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and east Jerusalem will inevitably be the Palestinian capital," he said. "The city is neither Israeli nor Palestinian. It is universal."
In 2006, the Arab League quietly designated Jerusalem its 2009 "Arab Cultural Capital," an honor that rotates among Arab countries. Winners typically use the occasion to showcase their attachment to Arab culture, sponsoring poetry, music, dance performances, lectures, school activities and sporting events.
But tensions boiled over last year when Israeli police stopped Palestinian organizers from holding an event at the Palestinian national theater in east Jerusalem to announce the winner of an art contest designing a logo for the cultural campaign.
Barenboim and Said, the longtime Columbia University professor who died in 2003, launched their idea in 1999 to bring Arab and Israeli musicians together and promote mutual reflection and understanding.
Appearing with Said's widow and five members of the orchestra, Barenboim stressed the need for Arabs to understand the historical suffering of Jewish people, but said Israelis were never going to realize peace with checkpoints, settlements and other symbols of occupation in the West Bank.
He rejected the idea that his orchestra could serve as a "political chorus," but insisted that its younger members could develop new, apolitical ways of promoting cooperation and understanding.
"It's not a Utopia," said Rawan al-Kurdi, a Syrian violinist, who said "conflicts, problems and sensitive issues" arise in an orchestra as in society.
"The first step about it," she said.
Israeli violinist Shira Epstein said she knows people at home who look down on her for "conversing or sitting next to Palestinians or Arabs."
Beautiful music may not necessarily sway them, but she said the experience of a multi-background ensemble has helped her develop "her own ideas" about her Middle Eastern neighbors.
Other members of the orchestra include Barenboim's son Michael, a violinist, and Said's great-nephew Karim, a Jordanian pianist.
talk They will be the stars during a performance at Geneva's Victoria Hall of Alban Berg's "Chamber concerto for piano, violin and 13 wind instruments," which will be followed by Hector Berlioz's "Symphonie fantastique."
Said once said that if he was grateful for one thing in the world it would be the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Asked why Berg and Berlioz were chosen over Bach for the concert, Barenboim said he could only respond with some Jewish humor.
"Why not?" he answered.
The tour, which began in the orchestra's home base of Seville, continues with performances in Salzburg, Austria; Bayreuth, Germany; and London.