Is classical music a means of escape from the world and all the worries it causes? It’s a notion conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim would resist. “For many people, music is here to let them forget the daily chores of life,” he says. “People have a difficult day at the office, they have a fight with their wife or their mistress, or both, they get bad news from their accountant. So they come home, exhausted, put their feet up, and put on their favorite Chopin nocturne — preferably played by me — and within three minutes they have forgotten their troubles. But I maintain music is not here to make us forget about life. It’s also here to teach us about life: the fact that everything starts and ends, the fact that every sound is in danger of disappearing, the fact that everything is connected — the fact that we live and we die.”
He warms to his theme, fixing me with the intense, challenging stare that has galvanized orchestras the world over. I understand now why musicians from Chicago to Berlin give him performances of such fire and intensity. “Once you start playing a piece, there is a connection between every note. You cannot say, ‘I will not concentrate on this note.’ You cannot ignore things the way you do in the rest of your life. And being in an orchestra teaches you that you cannot be in the center all the time, that sometimes you are not the soloist but have to become part of a bigger collective spirit.”
We meet the night after Barenboim conducts the final concert in a series of Bruckner symphonies in London with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Bruckner’s Eighth was an especially thrilling, take-nothing-for-granted performance — though Barenboim tells me a couple of cellos didn’t turn up in time for the start, because they forgot there was no Mozart piano concerto preceding the symphony that night.
“You obviously didn’t notice the cellos were weak, which is good,” he laughs.
This year, Barenboim will perform one of the biggest projects of his musical life: playing the complete symphonies of Beethoven at the BBC Proms series of concerts with his West-Eastern Divan orchestra, an ensemble that puts young Palestinian and Israeli musicians side by side, along with players from the rest of the Arab world. The series will climax with a performance of the Ninth on the same day as the Olympics opening ceremony.
The real challenge of these concerts, Barenboim says, will be the fact that he has programmed music by Pierre Boulez, the world’s greatest living composer-conductor, alongside the Beethoven.
“I had three choices,” he explains. “I could either just play Beethoven and his contemporaries. That’s not interesting to me — I wanted to make this music sound modern. So then I could try to find a different modern composer for each program; or I could find a single composer whose music could stand the tension of being sandwiched between two symphonies of Beethoven, which is not easy. How many composers could stand up to that? I thought of Elliott Carter and I thought of Harrison Birtwistle. I love Carter’s music. I think, since Haydn, there has not been a composer who is permanently in high spirits like Carter. And Birtwistle — well, I think his music is not in such high spirits, but it is wonderfully interesting. In the end, I chose Boulez because his music works in the opposite direction from Beethoven’s. Those are my three favorite contemporary composers. You see, I don’t go very far in the alphabet: Birtwistle, Boulez, Carter.”