Tristan and the gaza strip at the proms

The Proms are in full swing. We’re half-way through and I’ve been doing the BBC2 ones scattered through August this year.

Last night it was Daniel Barenboim and the East-West Divan Orchestra, his pet project of young Arab and Israeli musicians who swallow their political differences and unite in the playing of music.

I have to say that they’re not the finest orchestra in the world, nor is Barenboim the finest conductor. There were many moments during last night’s performance of Mahler’s 1st that DB leaned back on his podium, arms folded listening to the orchestra play, which either shows touching confidence in their organic ability to stay together or is just self-indulgence on his part. In either case, the orchestra was often all over the shop and the performance lacked the precision Schwung that makes Mahler magical.

That said, it was a memorable Prom for it’s extra-musical significance. (Though there’s quite an argument that music is supreme among the Arts precisely because it needs no extra-musical significance.) These young performers, as Barenboim said in his post-performance speech, exhibit huge courage in coming together in spite of their warring communities’ emnity. Barenboim receives death threats from Zionist extremists, the Orchestra has to travel under heavy security. Next week they will play in Ramallah on the West Bank, and flaunting that old Israeli taboo, they will be playing Wagner.

Wagner was hideously anti-Semitic and his music was undoubtably championed by the Nazi regime. But it is still ecstatically beautifully and it returns us to the afore-mentioned saw: should the extra-musical context of music matter?

As the East-West Divan Orchestra played Wagner’s Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde as our second encore of the evening, it was a moot point. The wave-upon-wave spiral of upwards-welling ecstasy that ends that piece – no matter how wonky the playing might have been – still moved me to tears. Was it the music? Was it all those young people doing what millions of Israelis and Palestinians cannot do – unite? I’m not sure. Nor did I really care.


  1. Marinos

    August 16, 2005 at 6:38 pm


    On the secret sea-shore
    white like a pigeon
    we thirsted at noon:
    but the water was brackish.

    On the golden sand
    we wrote her name;
    but the sea-breeze blew
    and the writing vanished.

    With what spirit, what heart,
    what desire and passion
    we lived our life; a mistake!
    So we changed our life.

    George Seferis

  2. Jay

    August 17, 2005 at 12:54 am

    Love the new website – very nice design, and being able to comment on posts is great… 🙂

  3. Valerie

    August 17, 2005 at 5:38 pm

    Some music hits us for itself and not the would you be just as effected by a lower level performance as a higher level one. Some music depends on the performance to make its point.
    Is this PROMS event a BBC sponsored event or is it a National event. Don’t think we have anything like it here in the Northeast USA except maybe Tanglewood or is it more like Spoleto in South Carolina?

  4. Bill

    August 18, 2005 at 6:43 pm

    The new site is great. From a fan in cajun country.

  5. Anna

    August 19, 2005 at 2:29 am

    Love the new site Alistair!

  6. Cait

    August 20, 2005 at 4:30 am

    I live in Canada and am a big fan of yours. The new site is very nice!

  7. David

    August 20, 2005 at 4:40 am

    Alistair, Thank you for sharing so much of yourself, so openly on your blogs. Your energy,intelligence, wisdom, curiosity and creative spirit all come through clearly.
    I hope you will save your writings so you can at some point years in the future review them and see how you developed as a human being. I have 20 years life’s experience beyond yours and when I go back and read my writing from 35 years ago I see a young man full of wonder at the experience of being alive. Periodic visits to Big Sur– which you enjoyed so much– and having the responsibility for raising two wonderful girls probably saved me from total madness.
    Now I am lucky enough to no longer have to have a “job,” so I have been regaining my sense of wonder about life.
    The experiences you have had in South America mirror my mental trips (Drug free) with astronomy. (Please understand I am making no negative judgment about your method of finding new understanding. I just wanted to be clear about my method) Gazing into the firmament for long periods in a quiet environment can also be an out of body experience. I have done this in locations as varied as Switzerland, Sicily and just a few miles from my home in the US. The experience has been most amazing at night at Big Sur as I laid on the beach and viewed the stars and listened to the surf. Looking upward on southern coast of France and listening to the pebbles being washed in and out on the beach at night was also very good. Understanding my existence as a bit of stardust with a certain degree of consciousness has given me amazing happiness and has helped me mature and connect in a different way to other people. I think all this means there really is a universal experience that comes from removing barriers to the brain’s higher functions. I have concluded it is possible to come to the same realizations by gazing either outward toward the heavens or inward as you have. My perceptions have been amazingly similar to yours.
    Forgive the wordy, long posting. I hope as your life’s journey proceeds your anxiety lessens. Your intelligence will then be more of a joy and less of a burden. Thank you again for sharing. Keep your sense of wonder…….David

  8. pippi longstocking

    August 22, 2005 at 6:59 am

    Alistair, in the States you are on the latest “Football Wives”— since it was set last few years are you still in the acting field? Pips

  9. Lisabelle

    August 23, 2005 at 12:54 am

    Hi Alistair! I’m in the USA (North Carolina) and an AVID BBCAmerica fan. I LOVE seeing you in Cash in the Attic and House Doctor. I was DELIGHTED to see you on Footballers Wives last night! The new site is spectacular. Much Love, Lisabelle

  10. Ronald

    August 25, 2005 at 2:45 am

    Alistair –

    thanks for directing us to your new site. I have been reading since 2003 and always find something interesting here… keep up the good work!

    All the best,

  11. J.R. Nelson

    August 27, 2005 at 3:22 am

    What a fantastic experience! Though the technical expertise of the group may not have been absolute, the symbolism there is definitely powerful– hopefully they will serve as an inspiration to others in the area.

    As for negative extra-musical connotations, I’m not sure if they matter. My band director liked to tell how Wagner would only touch one of Mendelssohn’s (who was Jewish) scores while wearing white gloves, which he would then make a point of removing. I’m not sure if it’s true, but it does illustrate his personal worldview. Despite all of this, his music is still a delight to experience today. I’m not sure how someone so limited in one aspect could be so _not_ limited in another, but it’s true that the man still managed to create wonderfully beautiful things.

  12. Draco

    August 28, 2005 at 1:03 pm

    Hi Allistair!
    I’m a 35 year old portuguese gay man who watch BBC here in Lisbon!
    I know you from there! 🙂

    This Sunday morning I’ve found your website.
    For the past two hours I’ve been reading your blog wich I think it’s amazing. Not only by you openning to everyone else, beeing a celebrety (or someone that everybody knows, if you prefer), but also for the matters that you write about.

    Two good things I took from the reading of your Blog:

    – I have to try one of this days to meditate. I have to learn how to as I am a very stressed person and very difficult to be calm. I can try to be relaxed in a calm place but if I don’t concentrate, my brain go 200 miles an hour think millions of things… 🙂

    – Next Friday I’ll be in London and I was a bit scared of beeing there because of the attacks from last month. Your post gave me peace. I do love England and I consider this country my home more ften than my own country. And one strange thing happen in the attacks day. I thought… If I had to go there today, I would go the same. I felt hurged to be and help someway… It was like the city felt mine. Very hard to explain.


    Thanks for everything!



  13. nicolaus gaier

    August 30, 2005 at 3:53 am

    hey alistair…was just wondering what you’re up to these days, and if you got into acting…we met in Berlin in ’98…I was pitching a screenplay to Udo Samel and Martin Walz (killercondom), who is doing a movie with Bruno Ganz and Ruppert Everett right now, as I understand…I came over to your place in Kreuzberg and dropped off a script of mine…I still live in San Francisco…after spending three very bizzar years in Hawaii doing my art work and screenwriting(there of all places I had a brush up with hollywood, good God it’s a painful, screwed up scene)…though the islands embraced my work, they did finally repell me back to California…though the US is a nasty mess, I must say…not too enjoyable to watch this nation drop its mask and reveal it empirical borderline fascist nature…quite frightening, actually…when I saw your attraction to buddhism, I was reminded of Deo, the main character and buddhist in the play, I gave you…I was drawn to buddhism again and again over the course of my life…yet for now, I developed an aversion to any form of organized religion…maybe a sign of the times…maybe a reaction to living in this country too steeped in Christianity for my taste…well, anyway…good to see you’re doing well…drop me a line sometime.


  14. Ross

    August 30, 2005 at 11:20 pm

    Hello Alistair:

    On the subject of music and the Proms …

    Cannot help but think of the Rolling Stones, with Geriatric Jack Flash up front, struggling to be relevant in 2005, and dealing with that by cranking up the volume. I recall being breathless (in a nice way) in early summer 1965 when I first heard “Satisfaction … I was a spotty teenager. And it never quite that good again. But the Stones took that one.

    I did watch “Last Night at the Proms” in 1967 and 1968 from my Aunt Doreen’s (we all have one, don’t we?) council flat in Gillingham. That was a draw, Proms tied with Stones.

    In 2005 I’ve seen the Stones advertizing some products on the TV (from the USA) and it’s a wild and frenzied audience leaping about. All seem to be having a great time, must be recent, eh? Or is that false advertizing?

    I catch bits of the Proms on TV, listen when I can over the BBC, and wish I were there. Love the enthusiastic audiences.

    The Proms for me in 2005. Stones zip.

    Will the Proms, in 50 years time, feature music by Jagger-Richards? Who will cheer for them then?

    OK, a Buddhist goes up to a hot-dog vendor on the streets of New York and says: “Can you make me one with everything?” It’s an old joke, but golden all the same.

    Keep on blogging, mate.

    From Bermuda …

  15. rhino75

    September 3, 2005 at 10:11 am

    I really like your stuff, particularly the longer “essays” (for want of a better word) that were on the old site, but you just don’t update enough Alistair!! The proms is SO over by now. Come on, shake a leg.

  16. Martin Ovor

    February 22, 2009 at 11:03 pm

    Seldom is drama in music so touchable as in the songs of Mahler.

Leave a Reply