Colburn Conservatory Offers New Exchange Program with Barenboim-Said Academy

Samar Talaat, bass, and Katrin Spiegel, viola

Barenboim-Said Academy students Samar Talaat, bass (left), and Katrin Spiegel, viola (right) spent three weeks at Colburn as part of the Conservatory’s new student exchange program.

This season introduced an exciting collaboration between the Colburn Conservatory and the Barenboim-Said Academy located in Germany. The two organizations have partnered in a student exchange program, a first of its kind for the Colburn Conservatory. Conservatory Dean Lee Cioppa expressed that “The Academy is very similar to our Conservatory, with a small size, a high level of financial support, and renowned faculty. Our student body has been excited at the idea of being able to immerse themselves in another high-level learning environment, but in a totally different setting, especially in such a culturally rich city as Berlin. It’s a great model for us—their students come to us for three weeks during their winter break, and our students are going to Berlin as soon as our semester ends. Three weeks is enough time to engage in rehearsals and performances, visit the city, study with faculty, and truly have a significant experience that they will cherish and remember for the rest of their lives.”

After hosting Academy students Katrin Spiegel, viola, and Samar Talaat, bass, here at Colburn over the past several weeks, two Conservatory students will make their way to Berlin as the spring semester ends. We sat down with Katrin and Samar to discuss their experiences here at Colburn, how Los Angeles compares to Berlin, and how the Academy has helped bring together young people of different backgrounds.

The Barenboim-Said Academy emphasizes uniting musicians of pan-Middle Eastern descent as an extension of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Both were established by Daniel Barenboim and Edward Said to unite young Arab and Israeli musicians and show that an alternative, peaceful approach is possible to conflict in the Middle East. Today, the Academy accepts students of all backgrounds and provides them a comprehensive musical education, as well as a broad introduction to the humanities, with the aim of creating excellent musicians and global citizens.

This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.

What made you each want to come here in the first place?
Samar Talaat (ST): I’ve never been to LA and I’ve heard a lot about the schools. I was like, “Okay, I would love to go to LA and check this out and see.”

Katrin Spiegel (KS): There was a time that I really thought  I wanted to study in the States, and suddenly this opportunity came up and I was like, “Wow, let’s check that out.” So I just applied. I know some students from here, like people that finished already, and they all said, “Yeah, you should go.” So I applied, and it’s very fun to be here.

How has it been different studying here?
KS: Well, we did not get the chance to be in classes, so we wouldn’t know the real difference and everything. But you guys here have lots of activities like the studio classes and [Performance] Forum every week. We have almost the same but, for instance, the studio class would happen once every semester, and we call it student concerts every week.

ST: But not everybody has to show up.

KS: Yeah. It’s kind of a bummer because you end up playing for like, seven people. It’s also very nice to have lunch with everybody together afterwards. That’s something that we should change.

You said you haven’t gone to classes here. What have you been working on?
ST: We were mainly practicing and going around the city with Peter [Lloyd], but also we had the orchestra week, which was cool. She’s [Katrin Spiegel] been doing chamber music. One of the weeks, I had a lesson every day for at least two hours and after that would be orchestra rehearsal, and then after that would be a bass class. I’ve had days like that multiple times, and it was really fun.

So it’s very lesson-focused as opposed to academic?
ST: Practice and that sort of thing.

Are there any technique differences in the United States? Or interpretational differences?
KS: It’s very different. It feels to me like here you have a lot of freedom to do what you focus on, while in Europe they try to guide you towards different stylistic boxes. If you play Baroque music, you just have to do it in that style, and classical music is a different style and so on.

ST: Here, you pick what sounds beautiful to you without being so into the style.

KS: It’s a different way of expressiveness.

ST: Yeah. Maybe because we go to this European school, especially a German school, and whenever you play a German classical piece, then you have to play that way. Here, it still sounds amazing and everything, but it’s very different from what we’re used to thinking will sound good. It challenged a lot of things we studied and learned before.

Do you think that you’re going to be taking those differences in technique back with you or do you think it’s just another thing in a toolbox to adapt to the ensemble that you’re in?
ST: It’s definitely another way of thinking that we should consider. It’s good to have more than one view if you’re approaching something. As my professor here would always say, “I know it’s not the same style that you’re used to, but just think about it. You can maybe use it one day—depends on how you’re feeling. Maybe you just feel like doing it that way. If you don’t want to use it, then it’s in the back of your head. It’s more knowledge.”

KS: We came with the purpose of learning new things. I feel like I did not know most of the things that I was exposed to here. So I guess whether we like it or not, a lot of things really stay in our minds, and it somehow naturally goes together. It does influence what we do. If you work with different people, you have, as she [Samar Talaat] said, different opinions and that makes our world much better. You’re not stuck in one.

What do you think about Los Angeles so far?
KS: It’s great. The only thing is that I can feel that the [prices] are very different because things are very expensive. But that’s fine. As long as the people here get enough money to live; it’s fine. In Berlin, we have actually more than enough from our school.

ST: But here, it was not enough.

KS: Here it was not enough. It was a very big difference.

Is there anything you’ve done in L.A. that really stuck out to you?
ST: I enjoyed [Grand Central Market] a lot because it’s such a nice thing to have a representative from almost each culture that exists. You can really taste the differences between the booths, and it’s so fun. I also love the fact that it is sunny every day.

Cloudy Berlin definitely isn’t known for that!
KS: We got used to the darkness! It’s amazing how our bodies adapt to the weather. We come from very sunny countries. That was a very big difference. Here, I think that really contributed to the fact that we felt more at home.

KS: People here are very smiley and everything’s very positive in a way that annoys me sometimes! [laughing] In Germany, everybody does their own thing. They don’t care about other people so much. I mean obviously they do, but in their own special way.

KS: I love Germany though. I think it gives a lot of room for you to be the artist you want to be. But at the same time, with all the restrictions, you kind of develop a sense of style that I feel like I didn’t get in Israel. But of course, I haven’t studied anywhere else yet. The future is a mystery!

ST: Oh, look at you! [laughing]

KS: Look at me, philosophizing! [laughing]

ST: Our philosophy teacher would be so proud of you.

You take a philosophy class?
ST: Yes, philosophy, literature, history of music, history of Europe, memory and society, global issues. A lot of humanity classes besides the musical classes. It’s a very small school. It has existed for lfive years, approximately. There are 76 people right now, which makes it a very small community, and it’s very nice. I mean, we drive each other crazy, but I guess that’s a part of it.

You get to learn how to work with people.
KS: Yeah, that’s great. I mean, the fact that our school consists of 75% Middle Easterners makes it very friendly to us, and we learn about each other more. The things that we learned in our home countries are not necessarily what we found at school.

ST: Looking at our countries, you actually learn that we’re not different at all. Everybody just wants to live, you know? It’s a matter of brainwashing that gets inherited, really. If you go to the older generation and you say, “Oh, well actually we’re friends, and she’s Israeli and I’m Egyptian,” they would be like, “No, you’re not. You deceived your country. You’re a shame to your country.” This is it for both sides, and it was quite hard to convince people that it is okay, we’re the same. But the younger generations, they’re always open to more things.

KS: So this is a great purpose of this academy in Berlin that they bring the young people together and say, “Look, you’re similar.” When we travel back, I have a lot of confrontation with other people that are still in the “brainwash opinions.” And once I start telling them my stories, they’re like, “Maybe that’s not so bad actually.”

KS: I do see a change in some people that I’ve talked to, and they don’t react as badly as they did before, which actually makes me wonder if the exposure is needed, because it is apparently. You can really see that some of the people started to get in touch more with the Arabic population in Israel, which makes a very big difference because right now we live in a government of hate.

Because a lot of those ideas are so culturally ingrained, do you think that leaving your home countries to go to Europe helped just remove yourself from it?
KS: A lot. I did all the things I needed to do. I served in the army for two years, and I did what all the Israelis do. As I grew up, I already felt that things should be different. But when I came to Germany, actually, that was the point where I really realized that things can be different. It’s just not like that because it’s beneficial to other people right now.

ST: Sometimes you have to get out of the box to see the bigger image, and once you see the bigger image you cannot unsee it anymore. And then you start thinking about things that were told to you when you were young, which turned out to be a lie. Like, “Oh, they’re different.” We share the same traditions. We share the same weird way of thinking. We share food. We learn from each other in a way. We share lots of word similarities.

I would assume that the common ground of knowing that you all love music was also a good bridge.
KS: Of course. That definitely pushed a lot of people to see common things because we knew we needed to get along, we need to live in the same place. It challenged a lot of people that were radical a bit before. Now they start seeing the bigger picture.

Do you ever want to incorporate activism with your art?
KS: Oh, I was I was an activist in Israel. I was teaching in some programs that were both Jewish and Arabic. As a soldier, I was teaching music. We can learn so much from each other. Why just focus on war? There’s no need for that. I know that a lot of people would say different things. I just hope that people can learn that it takes patience and it takes courage to get out of what you know and to try to be open to other ideas. It is hard at first.

KS: The Divan is a very good example for that. I have amazing friends there, and you can see it’s not a political orchestra. Everybody views it as one, but it’s not really, because in the end we have the same goal, which is to make music. It’s a universal thing, so why not use that? So activism in music, it exists. You can change a lot of things.

ST: The whole academy built on the idea. Otherwise it would be a musical academy where you’re just learning about music, but they’ve taken into a different level, which is genius.

Do you think that sometimes just existing in a space with other people can be seen as a political statement even if you’re not trying to make a statement?
KS: Oh, definitely. People really think that the Divan is a political orchestra. When we came to the States that was the first thing we were asked. Of course it could be interpreted that way, but I think the goal was to take people that are from the Middle East and that didn’t have such a great education in music and give them the opportunity to perform and work with an amazing conductor. It’s all connected in a way.

Is there anything else you’d like to touch on?
KS: I think that we should have more programs like this. I think that it’s very healthy for both sides to be exposed to each other, and it’s eye-opening. You can really start seeing yourself as an artist, and you kind of build yourself up because you learn from each experience that you have, no matter whether it’s bad or good.