(photo credit: AP)
Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim will lead the Cairo Symphony Orchestra Thursday in his first performance in Egypt, bringing his campaign to bridge divides through music to the heart of the Arab world for the first time.
He will conduct the orchestra in a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony and play several piano solos at the Cairo Opera House.
The visit by the famed conductor and pianist has been largely welcomed by mainstream Egyptian intellectuals and artists because of Barenboim's outspoken support of Palestinian statehood, criticism of the Israeli government and his contention that there is no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those views even earned him honorary Palestinian citizenship, which he accepted in 2007.
He is known for promoting understanding by bringing together young musicians from Israel and around the Arab and Muslim worlds in the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He helped create the project with late Palestinian-American intellectual and activist Edward Said, with whom he developed a close friendship after a chance meeting in the lobby of a London hotel.
News of his visit did draw limited opposition from several opposition newspapers that used the event to criticize Egypt's government. Despite Egypt's 1979 peace agreement with Israel, many in the country still oppose closer cultural ties until Israel reaches a final peace deal with the Palestinians.
Barenboim is believed to be the first prominent Israeli musician to perform in Egypt, said Hossam Maffar, an adviser to Egypt's culture minister.
Barenboim called his visit - only his second to an Arab country after a 2003 trip to Morocco - an important moment in his life. The Argentinian-born conductor moved to Israel at age 9. He has said that since then, he has always been curious about life in neighboring Arab countries and saddened by how many Israelis do not share that curiosity.
That "ignorance" also exists on the Arab side, he said.
"To put all Israelis in one basket and say we boycott, we don't want anything to do with them, anyone who goes there is an enemy, this is no good," he told a packed news conference in Cairo on Wednesday.
Describing his rehearsal with the Cairo Symphony Orchestra earlier in the day, Barenboim said he encountered musicians "full of curiosity, full of goodwill."
The one-time child prodigy pianist and Grammy Award winner led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade starting in 1991 and has worked closely for many years with the Staatskapelle Berlin and the Bayreuth Festival Orchestra among others.
Barenboim has led the Israeli-Arab orchestra in performances around the world. But besides a performance in Morocco in 2003 and in the West Bank city of Ramallah in 2005, the group has not traveled anywhere else in the Arab world. A planned concert in Cairo in January was canceled because of concerns over the musicians' safety during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza.
Responding to his critics among both Arabs and Israelis, Barenboim said his efforts to bring musicians from both sides together was not a political project, but a human one aimed at encouraging people to express their opinions.
"We don't represent Israel and I don't represent any government," he said. He acknowledged that his appearance in Cairo must be difficult for some.
Egypt's culture minister backed the visit, the result of an invitation from the Austrian Embassy.
"The maestro is known to be against Israeli aggression and is among the moderates and peace-loving people and is for the Palestinian cause," said the minister, Farouk Hosni.
Acclaimed Egyptian pianist Ramzi Yassa also said he was glad Barenboim has finally visited Cairo.
"As an Egyptian, I'm glad he's in Egypt for the first time," Yassa said. "As a musician, I'm also very glad that an Egyptian audience will have an opportunity to listen to him as a conductor, as a pianist and to meet him as a person, as a bridge builder with his music."