Near the end of Parallels and Paradoxes, a recent collection of dialogues on music and society between the conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), and his good friend, the scholar and music critic Edward Said, there is an extraordinary moment when the two men discuss the perspective of the past. Barenboim, bravely extolling the virtues of such Modernist radicals as Carter, Boulez and Birtwistle, not only puts them in the company of Beethoven but insists that we think of Beethoven the way we think of them: “He’s a modern composer…. The most important thing is to arrive at a way to play Beethoven with a sense of discovery, as if it were being written today.” Invigorating stuff.
Yet Said can’t quite go along: “But what about the pathos of the past?… There’s a kind of ruthlessness in history…. One feels that certain things are irrecoverable because they are past.” For a musical example he offers the Berg Violin Concerto, a tragic and deeply expressive (and universally beloved) Modernist work that ends with the quotation of a Bach chorale–something the conductor finds hard to accept.
Barenboim: I’m bothered by it, because…somehow it introduces a foreign element into the structure, into the piece.
Said: But what if you were told by him… “Well, I intended it.”
Barenboim: Yes, I’m sure. Well, I’m still bothered by it.
Both men surely know that the chorale’s first four notes are woven into the twelve-tone row Berg uses to compose the piece, making it both foreign and integral–in other words, a paradox. But the exchange points to the core of Barenboim’s character: an aggressive, intellectual optimist whose undeniable generosity has been underlined by a certain ruthlessness of his own. It is this temperament, as much as his enormous raw talent, that has made him one of the most distinctive–and sometimes controversial–musicians of our time, and in the newly revised and expanded edition of his memoir he reveals perhaps more of it than he intended.
Granted, this book, like Parallels and Paradoxes, is an absolute gift: What other conductor active in America–after Bernstein–could mix nuanced discussions of Buber, Aristotle, Spinoza, Wagner and Middle East politics with coolheaded musical analysis–and plenty of shop talk besides? But whereas the tempestuous, profligate Lenny enjoyed the love of millions, Barenboim’s renown, though well earned, has had a cooler tone. Barenboim inherited his post in Chicago, in 1991, from Georg Solti–admittedly, a daunting act to follow. Solti, a refugee Hungarian Jew who established his career in London and Vienna after World War II, became a Windy City treasure: Sports fans compared him to Dick Butkus, and the cabbies knew him by sight. Barenboim, just as mobile as his predecessor (he is also general music director of the Berlin State Opera, conducts Wagner frequently at Bayreuth and gives piano recitals throughout the world), has tried hard to ingratiate himself with the locals with outreach-type events, but somehow he always leaves the impression that his services are needed elsewhere. His indefatigable advocacy of the most complex and intellectual of composers has been laudable, but unpopular with subscribers; and a number of CSO players have complained of an arrogant podium manner. And while Barenboim’s richly detailed performances of Brahms, Bruckner and Wagner (not to mention his favorite contemporaries) are justly admired for their force and sweep, performances of other repertory–at the podium or the keyboard–sometimes find him underprepared.