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Daniel Barenboim conducts the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Image: NIKOLAY KRUSSER
MusicGermany

Daniel Barenboim: Classical music's heavyweight

Gaby Reucher
November 15, 2022

Daniel Barenboim is a legend, as a conductor, as a pianist and as an activist for peace in the Middle East. The concert to mark his 80th birthday has been cancelled for health reasons.

https://p.dw.com/p/4JX47

Daniel Barenboim was looking forward to celebrating his birthday on November 15 with musical fireworks, but his health won't let him. His medical condition has forced him to cancel a concert on his 80th birthday, the press department of the Staatsoper Berlin has said.

Together with his old friend, Indian conductor Zubin Mehta, Barenboim wanted to perform a Richard Wagner Overture as well as piano concerts by Ludwig van Beethoven and Chopin, with Mehta as conductor. Barenboim himself wanted to play the piano, but that will have to wait for later.

Always on the move

In the beginning of October, Barenboim revealed on social media that a "serious neurological condition" was forcing him to take a step back. "I must now focus on my physical well-being as much as possible," he wrote on Twitter.

Taking this step must not have been easy for a classical music conductor who is as much in demand as Barenboim. He is used to traveling across the world for his concerts as pianist and conductor, and has received many awards for his engagement with the world of music and otherwise.

"He has always lived five lives at the same time: As a conductor, as a pianist, as an initiator of projects like the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, as a family man and as a global art personality," director general Matthias Schulz said in a statement by the Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden.

A photo of Daniel Barenboim looking at the camera.
Barenboim looks back at an exceptional careerImage: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

Barenboim and his orchestra

Barenboim founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 together with the US-Palestinian literary theorist Edward Said, who died in 2003. Both wanted a peaceful solution to the Middle East crisis.

The ensemble brings together musicians from Israel and other Arab countries. In 2016, Barenboim founded the Barenboim-Said Academy, which trains young musicians from the Middle East in music and in the humanities.

A musical childhood

Barenboim's Jewish grandparents came from Belarus and Ukraine. They fled from antisemitic pogroms to Argentina in the beginning of the 20th century, the conductor told the audience in March 2022 during a concert of the Staatskapelle for Ukrainian refugees.

Conductors Daniel Barenboim and Zubin Mehta stand together
Barenboim has connected with many other musical greats, such as conductor Zubin MehtaImage: picture alliance / Maurizio Gambarini/dpa

Barenboim was born on November 15, 1942 in Buenos Aires. His father began giving him piano lessons when he was five and two years later, the conductor gave his own concert. "Music was always a source of joy to me, never a duty," he wrote in the weekly Zeit about his childhood.

In 1952, his family moved to Israel, partly because his father wanted Barenboim to be introduced to European music. Contemporary musical maestros at the time, including pianist Arthur Rubinstein and conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler were fascinated by the young pianist's talent.

Furtwängler became a role model for Barenboim. Speaking about the conductor in DW's documentary, "Music under the Swastika," Barenboim said the conductor's music had a "freedom of tempo" and gave listeners the feeling that he was composing while conducting.

Daniel Barenboim at a piano in 1954.
Barenboim, pictured here in 1954, was a piano prodigy Image: Imago/United Archives International

An exceptional talent

Barenboim was soon considered an exceptional talent. As a young man, he studied in Rome at the academy of the pianist and music teacher, Carlo Zecci. At age 15, he played with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and five years later, he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in New York — the world was his oyster.

Be it the Orchestre de Paris, Chicago Symphony Orchestra or La Scala in Milan, Barenboim was not to be stopped. He is as welcome at Salzburg's annual music festival, as he is with the philharmonic orchestras in Berlin and Vienna. At the Bayreuth Festival, he regularly conducted Wagner's operas, and in 2020, conducted the "Ring of the Nibelung" reinterpreted by Harry Kupfer.

For his 80th birthday, Barenboim had planned to conduct Wagner's Ring Cycle with the Staatskapelle Berlin, but could only conduct the first three parts. The last performance was conducted by Christian Thielemann.

An enfant terrible

Daniel Barenboim is a musician with all his heart and soul, but the conductor is also interested in social and political issues, as can be witnessed in his writing, lectures and his speeches at concerts. He has, for example, praised the courage of Ukrainians and spoken about the COVID-19 pandemic as a chance for more social interaction.

Daniel Barenboim conducts an orchesttra in 1991 in Argentina.
During his career, Barenboim has conducted many of the world's leading orchestrasImage: United Archives/picture alliance

Understandably, his attitude towards some issues is controversial.

In 2001, there was heavy criticism in Israel after Barenboim played Wagner's music in an encore following a concert with the Staatskapelle Berlin. The 19th-century composer was known to be antisemitic and had also written incendiary texts targeting Jews, which is why his music is not welcome in Israel.

In 2004, Barenboim caused a scandal when he criticized the occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel.

There were complaints against his person as well. In 2019, former employees of the Staatsoper in Berlin complained to the online magazine Van about Barenboim's tone of conversation and his authoritarian style. Barenboim disagreed with the accusations and saw the episode as a background of his contractual discussions for the position of director of the Staatsoper, which were taking place at the time. Meanwhile, his contract has been extended to 2027.

A photo of Daniel Barenboim in the Staatsoper Berlin theater.
Daniel Barenboim holds Argentine, Spanish and Israeli passports and has had honorary Palestinian citizenship since January 2008.Image: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Barenboim is not in a position to celebrate his birthday, but others are doing it for him. The Staatsoper Unter den Linden is posting photos in social media and the TV channel Arte is celebrating him with a series of concerts and documentations.

On November 15, Deutsche Grammophon is releasing a new recording of all four symphonies by Robert Schumann that Barenboim has conducted with the Staatskapelle Berlin.

Meanwhile, the conductor and musician hopes he will be well soon. In his Twitter post, he writes, "Music has always been and continues to be an essential and lasting part of my life. I have lived all my life in and through music… Looking back and ahead, I am not only content, but deeply fulfilled."

This article was translated from German.

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