The Rest of the World Loves Him, but Israel Refuses to Change Its Tune on Daniel Barenboim

As the conductor celebrated his 75th birthday recently, the Israeli establishment preferred to ignore the Argentine-Israeli maestro. He's unconcerned by that, but is worried about the lack of musical education everywhere

Daniel Barenboim at the State Opera House in Berlin, September 2017.
AXEL SCHMIDT/REUTERS

BERLIN – As we headed to the Berliner Philharmonie, the cabdriver was listening to the morning show on the radio, which had a lengthy feature on conductor Daniel Barenboim marking his 75th birthday. This made sense: After all, Barenboim runs the city’s State Opera House, the Staatskapelle Berlin, as well as two international ensembles he founded in Berlin, a music academy and a kids’ educational project. More surprising was the fact that the driver not only knew who Barenboim was, but also asked if I was en route to meet him, given how closely I was listening to the program.

His intuition was correct, though I don’t know where the idea came from that Barenboim would be spending the morning of his birthday, November 15, at the Philharmonie of all places.

Our interview took place while he was attending the final rehearsals before the concert celebrating his birthday that evening.

A group of children were hanging out by the musicians’ entrance, dividing their time between singing practice with their teachers and doing a warm-up run in the courtyard. When Barenboim arrived, they welcomed him with two songs. The children are graduates of the musical kindergarten he helped establish, and all the proceeds of the concert were earmarked for it. Musical education at all levels and for all ages has long been the focus of Barenboim’s efforts.

“Musical education is disappearing, even in Germany – and certainly in the United States, which is less aware of music,” he tells Haaretz. He believes this has had far-reaching ramifications in the world, even stretching to Britons voting to leave the European Union last year. “I think that this occurrence stems from the fact that culture is absent from the center of the public discourse,” Barenboim says. “People define their identity, their values and their politics according to economic components. They recognize the Euro zone as an economic phenomenon. The Bush administration, meanwhile, once defined liberty as the freedom to buy and sell as you wish.

“I understand that I’m speaking from a position that isn’t entirely fair: I have worked many years; I have means. Other people certainly have more decisive economic considerations. However, some of the political decisions were made because of this sense of a lack of belonging – and this feeling originates primarily in culture. Look here in Germany. Residents of eastern Germany lived under a dictatorship for nearly six decades – the Nazi regime, and after that communist East Germany. After unification, a joint democratic state was established and western Germany supported the rehabilitation of the eastern residents. How? With money. But they didn’t make a massive investment in culture and education to adjust to democracy, liberty and tolerance. What is the result? The rise of the extreme right.”

Barenboim was born in Buenos Aires on November 15, 1942. He started learning piano at 5 and gave his first performance in the Argentine capital at the tender age of 7. His mother gave him his first lessons, followed by his father, who went on to become his only teacher. The family emigrated to Israel in 1952 – the same year he began his career as an international pianist.

Criticizing the occupation

He has been a renowned pianist and conductor since the 1960s and remains active on the international stage. Still, the center of gravity of his activities has shifted over the years. He was particularly active on the British music scene in the 1960s and ’70s, frequently recording with the English Chamber Orchestra and collaborating musically with his wife, cellist Jacqueline du Pré. Her career was cut short by multiple sclerosis, with which she was diagnosed in 1973. She died at 42 in 1987.

Barenboim was musical director of the Orchestre de Paris from 1975 until 1989, and then served as musical director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra from 1991 to 2006.

He took up his current positions as music director of the Berlin State Opera and principal conductor of the Berlin State Orchestra (Staatskapelle Berlin) in 1992. The past 25 years have been significant both for him personally and for classical music in Berlin. Barenboim enjoys rare respect from colleagues and music lovers for his abilities as both an interpreter and performer of a wide repertoire. Moreover, he is equipped with a dominant, driven personality to initiate and push projects forward.

He is also well-versed in networking with politicians and donors. He brought in hundreds of millions of euros to refurbish the State Opera House, to establish a musical academy – the Barenboim-Said Academy, which focuses on Middle Eastern musicians and marks the friendship between Barenboim and the late American-Palestinian academic Edward Said – and to build a wonderful concert hall adjacent to the academy.

Besides establishing the opera and state orchestra as prestigious musical institutions, Barenboim has founded two special ensembles: The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, based in Seville, comprises mainly Israeli and Arab musicians; and the Boulez Ensemble draws its musicians from the ranks of the Divan Orchestra, the Staatskapelle and other bodies. It excels at playing new works.

Barenboim is extremely concerned with politics, and believes intellectuals and cultural figures have a duty to speak out and work for progress and peace. This attitude explains the creation of both the Divan Orchestra and Barenboim-Said Academy, as well as his political declarations, chiefly his harsh criticism of Israel’s occupation policy.

Daniel Barenboim at the State Opera House in Berlin, September 2017.
Bernd von Jutrczenka/AP

His pronouncements about these subjects have created a dual relationship with Israel. Establishment Israel tends to ignore him. His 75th birthday was celebrated almost everywhere in the world except for Israel. At the grassroots level, though, things are healthier. Many prominent Israeli musicians who moved to Berlin have won his support and guidance. Many of them are thrilled to join his Divan Orchestra, not only on ideological grounds but also because it’s a quality ensemble.

Barenboim dedicates most of his energies to educating the young. He is proud of Musikkindergarten Berlin, the musical kindergarten he established, and stresses that it accepts children from age 1 so they can develop their musical understanding at the earliest possible age. The next step is to expand the kindergarten’s activities and collaborate with a school that puts music at its core. “The intention is that at age 6 everyone will learn the piano,” says Barenboim. “The piano is important because it clearly demonstrates the horizontal, melodic part of music as well as its vertical, harmonic part.”

Neuroscience supports Barenboim’s line of thinking. As far as is known, the development of musical skills, especially playing skills, contributes to other mental and intellectual skills, such as spatial perception, coordination, mathematical abilities and language skills. “Besides this,” he says, laughing, “it preserves the understanding of music itself.”

He recalls hearing a conductor, whom he declines to name, explaining to a youth orchestra during a rehearsal of Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony” (Symphony No. 8) that the composer was gay and paid for sex, but was tormented by this, and therefore they needed to play his work with impatience and restlessness. “We might find that information appropriate for a youth orchestra, but it’s a terribly superficial reading of the music,” Barenboim notes. “It may very well be that Schubert was tortured and that music was his haven. But you need to read the music, not the biography. It’s something you understand when the musical education goes deep down into the roots at an early age.

“People ask me sometimes how I can play the same works over and over,” he adds. “I try to explain they are never the same.” Barenboim believes musical works exist as sheet music, but they only truly become music and sound when someone starts playing the notes. “And the musician is in a different mood every day, having another point of view,” he says. “Every time I play a work, it doesn’t matter how many times I have played it – I learn something new about it. The performer always sees himself in the work, and the listener always hears their implications in the work. This is an important understanding in the discourse on music, for which a musical education is vital.”

Tour de force

The Staatskapelle, conducted by Zubin Mehta, performed on Barenboim’s birthday. The program included a new work by young German composer Johannes Boris Borowski – “Stretta,” for piano and orchestra. “It’s good we can commission a new work by a talented composer for such a celebratory concert,” says Barenboim. There are different levels of musical renewal here – fundraising for a kindergarten while performing a work by a contemporary, interesting composer. I awaited Borowski’s work with interest.

About six months ago, I heard Barenboim conduct another of Borowski’s works, and it was an enthralling experience. The new work was a little less focused. It began beautifully and included lovely passages for the piano and orchestra. However, it also had moments where it seemed to be merely testing the orchestra’s abilities, without delivering a significant musical statement.

The Berlin audience is well-schooled in listening to new works, but the concert also included familiar works: Richard Strauss’ “Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche” and Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 5” (the Emperor Concerto), with Barenboim as soloist. In truth, I’m not really sure it mattered what they played. The audience filling the hall came to express their appreciation and admiration. The applause continued long after the concerto ended, and Barenboim and Mehta returned to play an encore. The orchestra players gave Barenboim flowers and the audience sang “Happy Birthday.”

The concert was described as a tour de force, but you could also call it a demonstration of love. I guess that the word “adoration” reflects Berliners’ attitude toward Barenboim. He’s the emperor who built a musical empire there that empowers him and brings prestige, resources and musical progress to the city.