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15 April, 2024

Coming Full Circle: A Conversation with Yamen Saadi

Coming Full Circle: A Conversation with Yamen Saadi
© Monika Rittershaus


You’ve played with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for more than 15 years. How did that story begin?

It all goes back to when I started playing the violin. My brother played guitar, and one day I saw a violin on TV and heard someone say that it’s a very difficult instrument to learn, maybe the most difficult. I thought to myself, That’s a nice challenge, and since then I really wanted to learn it. The Barenboim-Said Conservatory had just opened in Nazareth, where we lived, so I started studying there. I first played for Maestro Barenboim when he came to visit the school, and in 2007 I heard the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra for the first time at the Salzburg Festival—it was probably the first time I ever heard an orchestra live. I remember sitting in the rehearsals and thinking, I have to play in this orchestra! Some time later Daniel Barenboim led “A Concert for Two Peoples,” as it was called, in Jerusalem. I was part of the ensemble of young Israeli and Palestinian musicians who performed there. Afterwards I asked him if I could join the Divan. His answer was very simple: “You’re too young.” I was ten at the time and told him if it helped I could pretend to be 21. Somehow it did, and a year later, at 11, I was a member of the orchestra.

How has your relationship with Daniel Barenboim developed over the years?

I learned so much from him—not only musically, but also on a human and personal level. And by much I mean basically everything. He’s the person I’ve always looked up to, and I still do to this day. The first time I saw him work was kind of a shock for me. Every little detail mattered to him. That’s something I tried to adopt for myself immediately. I was so young and just wanted to learn as much as possible from him, like a sponge taking in everything I could. And of course his humanistic stance has had a huge impact on my life. I think without him I wouldn’t be playing the violin at all, because if it hadn’t been for the Barenboim-Said Conservatory, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity. Later I was lucky to study at the Barenboim- Said Akademie in Berlin and play for him many times, which I still do whenever I get the chance. Obviously our relationship has evolved over the years, but he remains a mentor figure to me. When I learn a new piece, I sometimes ask myself what he would think about this or that detail. That doesn’t necessarily give me a solution, but it always gives me a sense of direction. Actually the biggest difference might be that when I was younger, I couldn’t smoke in front of him… (laughs)
Are there any specific moments or concerts that stand out in your memory?

That’s very hard to answer because it’s impossible to choose. Of course I’ll never forget my first tour, performing in all these famous halls. It’s simply unforgettable and an unbelievable experience to play at the BBC Proms as an 11-year-old. The same is true for the Beethoven cycle we did over three years. We played and recorded all the symphonies, working on them very intensely, so we got to know these pieces extremely well, and I was still very young, maybe 14. Then there were the concerts in the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea, at the United Nations, the first time at Carnegie Hall, the Musikverein in Vienna… This list is endless. But there’s one that’s really special to me. It was in Buenos Aires, I don’t even remember the year or what we played. I got a call one evening and was told I would lead the orchestra as concertmaster for the first time the next day. I will never forget that. It does feel different sitting in that chair! I thought, What am I doing here? What am I supposed to do? You learn by doing it. Looking back, that was a key moment for me.

How did your experience with the Divan prepare you for what you’ve been doing for the last two years as concertmaster of the Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera?

It was absolutely crucial. I don’t want to think of my time in the Divan as preparation for anything else. It was an experience in itself. But I learned everything there: how to play in an orchestra, how to listen in the orchestra, how to lead, how an orchestra functions and should function in all meanings of the word. Playing together as one body of sound is really key. And of course performing with Maestro Barenboim and working with him during these very intense rehearsal periods really teaches you to understand a piece of music in every little detail, to understand the score, not only the notes themselves but also what’s behind them and how to make them your own. Gaining this experience by playing in the Divan was priceless to me.

What goes through your mind as you prepare to perform as the soloist for the orchestra’s 25th anniversary?

It’s more than a dream come true. When I joined the orchestra, I secretly hoped that I would get to lead it someday, and luckily, I was able to do that later on. And whenever we were playing with a soloist, I would always think, I would be so honored to be in that position one day. You never know where life takes you—it’s simple but true. Playing this concert means so much to me, not just for my career, but also personally. It’s like performing with my family because the Divan is the orchestra I grew up in, it’s my family, and so is Daniel Barenboim. This is not just about the great music we’re playing. It feels like a beautiful circle coming to a close—the most meaningful concert of my life.


Interview: Tyme Khleifi 
Tyme Khleifi joined the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2004. Since 2015, she has been working at the Barenboim-Said Akademie and the Pierre Boulez Saal as Daniel Barenboim’s assistant and manager of the Boulez Ensemble.
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