Master of His Domain

Photo: Steve J. Sherman/Courtesy of Carnegie Hall

There are many people—and Daniel Barenboim is probably among them—who consider Daniel Barenboim the world’s most significant classical musician. The conductor and pianist projects three distinct impressions: that he is used to being the most distinguished person in the room; that he has something at once profound and self-evident to say; and that, having said it, he has to leave urgently. He once reportedly remarked that it would be fun to perform in Los Angeles, New York, and London all in one day. That hat trick remains theoretical, but he does move around enough to leave a choppy wake.

Barenboim has Israeli, Spanish, and Argentine passports, plus honorary Palestinian citizenship, and recently paid his first visit to Egypt, to conduct the Cairo Symphony Orchestra. Some Egyptians howled that he was trying to normalize the country’s relations with Israel—even though the Israeli right considers him unpatriotic. You can’t please everyone.

His role as a global mandarin is so outsized that Carnegie Hall has organized swaths of the current season around him. At the moment, he and his orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, are in the middle of a two-week marathon of all ten Mahler symphonies (half of them conducted by Pierre Boulez). That’s a tranquil schedule compared to his visit last December, when he performed Elliott Carter’s freshly composed piano concerto at the composer’s 100th-birthday concert at Carnegie Hall; then conducted Wagner’s mega-opera Tristan und Isolde the following night and gave a piano recital two days later, both at the Met. He should have been giving off adrenaline fumes. Instead, he glided serenely from spotlight to spotlight. “A lot of musicians need some kind of a ritual to get concentrated,” he says. “For me this is not the case.”

Barenboim wields his talents with maddening nonchalance. His Met Tristan was a thing of liquid glory, but I have heard him conduct performances that felt both mercurial and inert. The Mahler First he led last week contained both poles: It was messy, visceral, occasionally ugly, and fitfully thrilling. As a pianist, he sometimes falls back on labors of decades past, plunging into a Beethoven sonata with intense but slightly vague familiarity, bulling his way through arpeggios on the way to an epiphany. At his best, though, he creates a sense of lucid spontaneity. “When I see a piece for the first time, I have only a gut reaction,” he says. “Then I start analyzing it, and I get knowledge about it. Then I achieve a conscious naïveté so it sounds as if I were inventing that music in the moment.” Barenboim has no interest in the definitive performance; what matters is ephemerality. “If a carpenter makes a table, when he comes back tomorrow, it’s still there,” he says. “Imagine if it weren’t. Then you would start [again] with added enthusiasm. It’s a wonderful way to spend a life.”

Barenboim grew up as the ferociously talented and pampered son of cultivated Jews who moved from Buenos Aires to Israel when he was 9. Soon, he began shuttling among European cities and New York. He bears the traces of his travels in his speech: native Spanish, Hebrew, and fluent but accented streams of German, French, Italian, and English. Constant motion is the organizing principle of his life, and also of his art. In music, “you have to find a way to put the extremes together, not necessarily by diminishing the extremity of each one, but to form the art of transition,” he once declared. “It’s not the statement of a phrase that’s really important, but how you get there and how you leave it.” This is a philosophy of flux. Whatever the metronome or the score may say, a symphony is always speeding up or slowing down. Momentum is all.

“Put the extremes together” is also a good way to describe life in the Middle East—or his co-founding of West-Eastern Divan orchestra, which unites musicians from Israel and Arab countries. Barenboim strides through life sweeping aside pieties and abrading sensibilities. Music, for him, is a vital source of energy, and he is simply its appointed conduit. “Everybody talks about the power of the conductor,” he told a press conference in Cairo. He stood up and gave a dramatic downbeat. “Do you hear anything?” The roomful of reporters answered with silence, then titters, and finally applause.

Staatskapelle Berlin
Daniel Barenboim.
Carnegie Hall.
Through May 17

Master of His Domain