Thursday, July 22, 2010

Happy 22nd!

Daniel Barenboim performing the Beethoven piano sonata no. 22, opus 54.

Daniel Barenboim (born 15 November 1942) is an Argentine-born pianist and conductor, a descendant of Russian Jews. His parents moved to Israel when Barenboim was a nine-year-old boy.  He lives in Berlin and holds citizenship in Argentina, Israel, and Spain. He also holds a passport issued by the Palestinian Authority.  Barenboim first came to prominence as a pianist but is now perhaps better known as a conductor. Barenboim is often considered to be one of the greatest pianists in both the 20th and 21st centuries, and has been central to bringing classical music to a much wider audience.

He is also known for his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, a Sevilla-based orchestra of young Arab and Jewish musicians that he co-founded with the late Palestinian-American scholar and activist Edward Saïd (whom Barenboim called his best friend).

Barenboim has been an outspoken critic of the Israeli settlements and of Israel's government since Rabin. He is also a supporter of Palestinian rights. In 2001, he sparked a controversy in Israel by conducting the music of Wagner in concert, as such a performance had not been staged in Israel since its inception and was informally taboo.

Daniel Barenboim is a prototypical rootless cosmopolitan.  But then, so was Beethoven.  Beethoven was born in Bonn, Germany but lived as an adult in Vienna.  Perhaps Beethoven was corrupted in his youth by a rootless Jew.

On July 7, 2001, Barenboim led the Berlin Staatskapelle in part of Richard Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde at the Israel Festival in Jerusalem. The concert sparked controversy. Wagner's music had been unofficially taboo in Israel's concert halls (although recordings of it were widely purchased and listened to) because of revulsion with the racial anti-Semitism that Wagner had espoused in print -- which presaged and quite likely influenced Hitler. Previously the Palestine Philharmonic had performed Wagner's music. Barenboim had long opposed the ban, regarding it as reflecting what he calls a "diaspora" mentality that is no longer appropriate to Israel. In a conversation with Edward Said (published in the book Parallels and Paradoxes) he says that "Wagner, the person, is absolutely appalling, despicable, and, in a way, very difficult to put together with the music he wrote, which so often has exactly the opposite kind of feelings . . . noble, generous, etc." He calls Wagner's anti-Semitism obviously "monstrous", and feels it must be faced, and argues that "Wagner did not cause the Holocaust."

Barenboim originally had been scheduled to perform the first act of Die Walküre with three singers, including tenor Plácido Domingo. However, strong protests by some Holocaust survivors, as well as the Israeli government, led the festival authorities to ask for an alternative program. (The Israel Festival's Public Advisory board, which included some Holocaust survivors, had originally approved the program.)

Barenboim agreed to substitute music by Robert Schumann and Igor Stravinsky for the offending piece, but expressed regret at the decision. At the end of the concert he announced that he would play Wagner as an encore and invited those who objected to hearing the music to leave, saying, "Despite what the Israel Festival believes, there are people sitting in the audience for whom Wagner does not spark Nazi associations. I respect those for whom these associations are oppressive. It will be democratic to play a Wagner encore for those who wish to hear it. I am turning to you now and asking whether I can play Wagner."  A half-hour debate ensued in Hebrew in the hall, with some audience members calling Barenboim a "fascist." In the end, according to reports in the Israeli press, about 50 attendees walked out, and about 1000 remained, applauding loudly after the performance. (According to Israeli newspaper interviews, at least one who remained in attendance was a Holocaust survivor, again undermining the simple assertion that all survivors opposed the performance of Wagner in Israel.)

Barenboim regarded the performance of Wagner as a political statement, and said he had decided to defy the taboo on Wagner when a news conference he held the previous week was interrupted by the ringing of a mobile phone to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries.  "I thought if it can be heard on the ring of a telephone, why can't it be played in a concert hall?" he said.

In 2005, Barenboim gave the inaugural Edward Said Memorial Lecture at Columbia University, on the theme Wagner, Israel and Palestine.


Gary Freedman said...

Daniel Barenboim is considered by many to be the most interesting Wagner conductor today. He has conducted all the major operas around the world. His base has been Berlin and Bayreuth.

Barenboim first appeared in Bayreuth in 1981 in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's production of Tristan und Isolde (the one where Isolde's appearance in the 3rd act is just a fantasy or a dream). Between 1981 and 1999 Daniel Barenboim conducted 161 performances in Bayreuth, appearing almost every year.

In 1999 Daniel Barenboim jointly founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra with Edward Said (1935-2003). The members of the orchestra are Israeli, Palestinian, Lebanese, Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian musicians.

Tristan und Isolde (Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, 1981-87)
Parsifal (1987)
Der Ring des Nibelungen (Harry Kupfer, 1988-92)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (Wolfgang Wagner, 1996-99)
Tristan und Isolde (Heiner Müller)

1999 was the last time Daniel Barenboim appeared in Bayreuth. This is how he explains his withdrawal from the festival in his autobiography Daniel Barenboim - A Life in Music:

I never made a conscious decision to leave Bayreuth. It was a process of evolution. In 1997, I decided I wanted to return to Argentina in the summer of 2000, because I had played my first piano recital in Buenos Aires on 19 August 1950. The desire to return and play a concert in Buenos Aires on 19 August 2000 ran in a slightly sentimental vein. I would have preferred to appear in the same hall, which was very small, but it does not exist any more. Therefore, the concert was to take place at the Teatro Colón instead. I shared my thoughts with Wolfgang Wagner, who understood perfectly well, and I told him jokingly that, like a true criminal, I had to return to the scene of the crime. Ideally he would have liked to have someone conduct Meistersinger in my absence. However, as we pondered the options, it became clear rather quickly that it would have been very impractical to have someone else conduct it for one year, and have me come back the year after. It made more sense to have the same conductor in 2000 and also in 2001. So the decision to leave was simply the result of reason and timing.

Gary Freedman said...

I wonder if Aida Epstein knows Daniel Barenboim? As Vernon Jrodan says: "All Argentinian Jewish concert pianists know each other."

I worked for Bernie Epstein at The Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in the 1970s.