For Udi Bar-David, playing the cello is more than just what it seems on the surface — it’s an opportunity to bring people together through the power of music.
In fact, in addition to playing with The Philadelphia Orchestra since the late ’80s, he’s started two nonprofits just to be able to bring artists together to create dialogue through music.
“The whole premise of the arts is based on listening and based on harmony, and what is harmony?” Bar-David reflected. “It’s individual voices coming together in a way that fits, and one cannot exist without the other. … The arts, in a way, are the deepest expression available to humanity, so when you speak about culture — and culture and arts to me go hand-in-hand … it’s also an opportunity for groups that are in conflict to learn about each other through their respective cultures and arts.”
He began playing cello when he was 7, growing up in Tel Aviv with a musically inclined family. His affinity for it started even earlier, as he remembers learning to read music when he was about 5.
He picked up the cello, and the rest is history.
“The other three — my parents and my brother — played violin, so I guess I had to be different,” he said with a laugh. “But at 7, I don’t even think it was my choice. They introduced me to that and I fell in love with it quickly.”
He went on to study at the Juilliard School as well as the Curtis Institute of Music and ultimately joined The Philadelphia Orchestra in 1987.
“I would like to be modest, but it is a very renowned orchestra,” he said proudly. He’ll join the Orchestra on its upcoming tour of Israel this summer, which he said brings his life as a musician full circle. “It has filled my life for the last 30 years.”
Throughout his acclaimed career, he’s sought out musicians of different backgrounds and cultures with whom he could collaborate, from those who are of Arab or African-American backgrounds to those who play blues and jazz.
In 2003, he started his first nonprofit, Intercultural Journeys, which included performances, conferences, master classes and lectures to provide opportunities for musical dialogue and understanding across different cultures.
“I started following my internal craving to collaborate with musicians from different cultures,” he said.
He worked with black musicians and together they performed music that touched on both cultures in Baptist churches as well as synagogues. He worked with a Palestinian musician and joined him for a tour in Israel and Palestinian-controlled areas, as well as Arab Jewish groups that were seeking coexistence and peace, not just in music.
More recently, he started ARTolerance, which grew from his desire to use music to foster deeper communication.
With the organization, he developed what he calls “Dialogue in Three Movements.” The first is a simple introduction between two people, followed by a second movement of getting to know the other person through exploring commonalities and overlapping areas of interest.
The third movement is what Bar-David calls “fusion without confusion,” which he said “is essentially about creating a common language; it’s about understanding the other.”
He hopes to be able to put this into practice during a concert at Temple Beth Zion-Beth Israel May 9 (previously scheduled for March 7 but postponed due to a snowstorm). The concert is a collaboration between ARTolerance and the synagogue in recognition of Israel’s upcoming 70th anniversary.
In a performance called “One Song,” Bar-David will be joined by BZBI’s Director of Sacred Music Rabbi Yosef Goldman; Nitzan Haroz, an Israeli native and principal trombone in The Philadelphia Orchestra; and Joseph Tayoun, a second-generation Lebanese American and accomplished Middle Eastern percussionist.
He wanted to create a program that “brings together the diversity and plurality in Israeli society.”
For him, the program’s title is key.
“We are creating one song, but getting to the one song we will get through Israeli folk songs and some songs based on the scriptures and Arabic music. Some is soulful, some is entertaining. But there’s something cohesive about all of it,” he said, “because it connects to Israel — that’s the one song. There is something uniting in everything we do in that evening.”
But in all the music he plays, he looks for ways to fuse the sounds with those of other artists. While he has classical training, he has become known for his improvisation — a practice he said could be used by all artists to create connection and understanding.
“Improvisation is based on listening. You play something for me, I listen. My reaction is already based on what I hear,” he said, adding it’s a practice some leaders — like politicians — could benefit from as they usually “just end up protecting their own territory.”
“This could be a breakthrough if many artists realize the capacity they have to be impactful and if we find the best ways to convince others to utilize us.”