Dueling pianists make peace in the Middle East

The World
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Israeli and Palestinian officials have been negotiating a peace deal for the past three months with few results other than accusations and frustrations – the usual noise.

It’s nothing at all like the melodious sounds of the two 30-year-old, internationally-renowned concert pianists of Duo Amal. They formed the piano duo two years ago in the name of peace, but have discovered some unexpected musical benefits along the way.

Israeli-Palestinian collaboration is quite rare on the classical music scene. It was only last month that the pianists of Duo Amal performed together on their home turf, and they just wrapped up a tour in the U.S.

The Israeli-Palestinian piano duo began exactly where the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Peace Accords began — in Oslo. Israeli piano prodigy Yaron Kohlberg was asked to play a concert there five years ago.

“They said, 'oh, this concert is going to be for peace,' something like this,” said Kohlberg . “'There will be lots of Arab diplomats and diplomats and stuff like that.'”

So he thought, why not invite Bishara Haroni to play with him? Haroni was a Palestinian pianist of about the same age, and it was a concert for peace, and, well, as Haroni says, they were considered the top Israeli and Palestinian pianists of their generation.

“I knew Yaron was one of best, if not the best, pianists in his age. And for sure, in the other side, [the] Palestinian side, I was almost the only one,” Haroni said. “It doesn’t matter if I am good or not good.”

But he is good. When they first got together to rehearse, things just clicked.

“We almost didn’t need to rehearse actually,” Kohlberg said.

“We communicated so well and we understood each other so, so good,” said Haroni, “Everything worked so well, our feeling was good.”

It’s hard to imagine that these two pianists, so synchronized in their music-making, grew up in such different worlds.

Haroni, from the Arab town of Nazareth in northern Israel, grew up listening to eastern Oriental music, and considers himself a proud Palestinian. Kohlberg was raised in Jerusalem, his mother is a classical musician, and he considers himself a patriotic Israeli.

“I never had a true Arab friend. I didn’t really know how it is to grow up as a Palestinian in Nazareth,” said Kohlberg. “So it was a very interesting process…. We got to know each other, and got to learn from each other, too.”

Two years ago, the pianists decided to make Duo Amal their career. Kohlberg moved to Berlin, where Haroni was living, and moved into the same apartment building. They began spending hours upon hours together rehearsing, and also duking it out.

They are, after all, an Israeli and a Palestinian.

But they’re also a musical rarity. There aren’t many professional piano duos out there.

“Before we started the duo, we weren’t aware of... the variety of pieces that there are,” said Kohlberg. “There are quite a lot of original pieces not often played.”

The duo has resurrected piano works by Rachmaninoff, Mozart and Stravinsky that are rarely performed. They have also commissioned original works: a piece from Berlin-based Palestinian composer Samir Odeh Tamimi, called Amal, and one from U.S.-based Israeli composer Avner Dorman, called Karsilama.

Israeli-Palestinian politics have been unavoidable for the pianist duo. Activists at a Palestinian cultural festival in London threatened to picket one of their concerts. The duo has tried to arrange a performance in the West Bank, but Palestinian concert organizers have been hesitant.

When the pianists gave their first joint performances in Israel last month with the Israel Philharmonic, people asked them, point blank: were they not just a "Kumbaya" gimmick?

“The music for us is the main thing, before anything else,” Haroni said.

“People who suspect it’s a kind of gimmick, stop suspecting it when they hear us play,” Kohlberg added.

Seeing them play is also a dramatic, and symbolic, sight.

Two grand pianos are nestled together in a yin-yang position, and, from the audience, it looks like one long, shiny, black mass. An Israeli and a Palestinian sit on each end, far apart, but their fingers race across the keys in impeccable synchronicity.

Interpret it as you will, but sometimes two pianos are better than one.

A previous version of this story misspelled Yaron Kolberg's name.

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