Key Man: Daniel Barenboim

Photo: Courtesy of Shuman Associates

After more than a decade as the hardest-working man in the classical-music business, the pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim may actually catch his breath this year. The 63-year-old Argentine-Israeli is stepping down from the podium of the Chicago Symphony in June, though he’ll keep his gig at the Staatsoper in Berlin. He’s also playing a duet concert with pianist Radu Lupu at Carnegie Hall on Monday, and he spoke—after an emergency rescheduling—with Alicia Zuckerman.

When I was scheduled to interview you last month, you were being taken to the hospital in Berlin, after a severe dizzy spell. How are you feeling?
I’m okay. It’s a good sign that I made it here.

The recital you’re doing with Radu Lupu is a little unusual.
To play four hands requires two people who have great affinity for each other. You’re playing on the same keyboard and therefore with the same total volume as if you’re playing alone. Therefore you have to reduce the volume.

And reduce the ego?
[Laughs] Well, ego shouldn’t come into this in the first place. I love to play with Radu Lupu, but it’s not something I’d like to do with different people all the time.

You’re certainly busy enough—how do you manage your time?
When I took over the Staatsoper in Berlin, I calculated, quite precisely in the end, that for ten years I could do that. I used to spend about four months [per year] in Chicago. I used to conduct the last opera in Berlin on Sunday, get on a plane on Monday to Chicago, and start a rehearsal that same night, if it was a performance week. Now I will play the piano more, and sometimes allow myself the great luxury of four weeks off in a year.

Is there anything to the rumblings about the Atlanta Symphony’s Robert Spano succeeding you in Chicago?
I have no idea. I completely disassociated myself from the process.

You don’t have any desire to choose your successor, the way Georg Solti handpicked you?
No, no. With all due respect and gratitude, I don’t believe in that. The musicians really should have a say in whom they want to make music with.

You’re going to be doing a new production of Tristan und Isolde at La Scala, and there’s been some buzz about your filling the vacant music-director job there. Do you want it?
No. No. No. I cannot be music director at La Scala and at Staatsoper. This would be unfair to one of the two institutions.

So you’re staying put in Berlin.
I have been elected conductor for life. I mean, I could ask for an extension … [Laughs] I’ve told them this is a decision they can revoke. You also run a youth orchestra for Arabs and Israelis. Does the election of Hamas affect what you will do?
I hope not. What I’ve done there—started a musical kindergarten [and] a Palestinian youth orchestra—these are not political actions, you know. In any case, I am going to Ramallah on April 22, to conduct a concert with Palestinian kids.

That could be read in many ways.
I have very little interest in the end in how things are perceived. Controversial means somebody who makes people think. And if you are afraid of people who will be against you, you might as well stay home and do nothing.

At Carnegie Hall February 20

Key Man: Daniel Barenboim