Barenboim takes it day by day, balancing music with illness

MILAN – No one was more surprised than Daniel Barenboim himself about the spontaneous return to the Milan Teatro alla Scala as a last-minute sub just two weeks after he had officially resigned from his position as general music director of the Berlin State Opera after 30 years.

The 80-year-old conductor and pianist, a preeminent figure in classical music, received a call at 7:15 am Sunday with an unexpected invitation to conduct three Mozart concerts after Daniel Harding canceled due to family reasons. On Wednesday, Barenboim, who had left his Berlin post due to ill health, conducted rehearsals at Milan’s La Scala, a theater where he worked as chief guest conductor for almost a decade before becoming its musical director.

“It’s like I’ve been gone for a week. I was very touched, really,” Barenboim told The Associated Press, saying more than the faces he found familiarity in the “sound.”

There is no question that his health remains a major concern after being diagnosed with what he has only described as a “serious neurological condition”. He moves slowly and takes his time getting up. However, people who have watched him rehearse say that his energy is evident as soon as he picks up the baton.

Despite the illness, Barenboim wants to be at the conductor’s podium as much as possible – even if it means sitting down, as he did at a New Year’s concert in Berlin and may do again in Milan. “We take it every day,” he said.

“I know I’m expected to say that this disease has changed my life. No,” he insisted. “Things that used to be very important to me as a musician are still just as important. Things that weren’t important still aren’t important. I can’t say I feel perfect but I feel good enough to conduct tomorrow and I hope Thursday and Saturday. And next we will see.

Piano is another matter. He has only made two public appearances in the past year, he said. When he plays privately, well, he wants to keep that his business.

What is clear is that at no point in his seven-decade career has he traveled the globe, directing orchestras from Berlin to Milan, Chicago to Paris, Barenboim has ever considered slowing down his frantic pace. Until his health problems forced him to do it.

“You know, I’ve never felt my age. I never thought about the fact that I’m not 20 or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 anymore,” Barenboim said. “I’ve been hit, but I feel good and I can make music. I’m very happy to be making music.”

The task of the Berlin State Opera, he said, made him sad. “But it was necessary,” he said. “It’s a full-time job. And I can’t do that anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore.”

Barenboim remains in touch, will conduct two concerts with the Berlin State Opera Orchestra, Staatskapelle Berlin, later this month and intends to do more. “I don’t have to hope. I will do it,” he said.

Barenboim made his first public appearance at the age of 7 in his native Argentina.

His extraordinary biography traces a wide arc of 20th-century geopolitical history, from his Jewish grandparents’ flight from Russian pogroms in the early 1900s to his parents’ decision to move with him to the newly founded Jewish state of Israel when he 10 years old because He said they wanted him to live “as part of a majority, not as part of a minority.”

He first became aware of the persecution of Jews on the way to Israel. His parents took the young Barenboim to a master class in Salzburg, but would not allow him to accept an invitation to Germany because the memory of the Nazi Holocaust was too close. He’s still struggling to understand why Austria, Hitler’s birthplace and annexed by Nazi Germany, was a yes and Germany a no to his parents.

Decades later, Berlin has been his home for 30 years, and his work reviving the Berlin State Opera in former East Berlin is widely credited with reviving cultural life in Germany after reunification.

Even against such historical momentum, Barenboim is troubled by the world around him. Putin’s war in Ukraine, which he finds difficult to comprehend. The situation in Israel. And the decision of some in the West to isolate Russian musicians, which he doesn’t think is justified. “Not all Russians are against Ukraine,” he said.

“Let’s be honest, we don’t live in very spiritual times these days. The spiritual dimension has diminished in every way,” said Barenboim. “I find it very sad and I hope it’s just a transition. I’ve known the world since the 1950s. For better or for worse, I’ve always been a I am a very fortunate person to visit the universe. But I think it has become very natural. Very material.”

He believes that people could find salve in music, but that many, even musicians, are in too much of a hurry to take the time to appreciate it.

“People don’t know how to listen to music. You don’t need to know the complicated technical details of composition. But you have to concentrate while listening. You can’t look at the phone and do other things,” Barenboim said. “And I think you should look for that spiritual state that music can give you. It doesn’t come by itself.”

Barenboim continues his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he began with writer Edward Said and plans to conduct in Salzburg and Lucerne this summer, and with the Barenboim-Said Music Academy in Berlin, which was founded in 2017.

Both bring together musicians from historically hostile countries to promote dialogue.

He finds the cooperation exemplary, and he is particularly impressed by the students at the academy. He tells how he recently saw a performance at the academy: a Palestinian student on the clarinet, an Israeli student of Ethiopian origin on the first violin, a Syrian on the second violin, an Iranian on the viola and the cellist was an Israeli.

“Seeing this quintet, the understanding of each other and what everyone does and contributes was heartwarming,” he said, pausing to think. “It means there is hope.”

Barenboim’s third Saturday performance in Milan, featuring three Mozart symphonies, will be streamed live on La Scala’s new streaming service, La Scala TV.

Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, transcribed or redistributed without permission. Barenboim takes it day by day, balancing music with illness

Sarah Y. Kim

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