Daniel Barenboim: Conducting Change
The world-renowned pianist, conductor and activist Daniel Barenboim is dedicated to making real change in the world through music.
Daniel Barenboim is one of the world’s most well respected, highly regarded conductors. The Argentinian-born Israeli Palestinian and Spanish citizen was a piano prodigy whose early and profound connection with music informed his belief that it exists not merely for its own sake, but as an instrument of change. Now in his mid-70s, today Barenboim is as well known for his activism as he is for his music, but he says music is still revealing itself to him.
Daniel Barenboim: Every time I play a piece of music, or conduct a piece of music, I learn something new. Every single time. Some detail which I had not seen in exactly that way.
This process of discovery began as soon as he started playing the piano at age five. His father, who was also his music teacher, believed that the great composers could also be useful co-parents.
Barenboim: My father was very often criticized when I was 11, 12, for letting me play works that obviously require great maturity, late Beethoven sonatas, and he replied very simply, by the music staying in the drawer, it will not become more mature. And so, in the end, I learned a lot more from music for life. I knew what passion was in music long before I knew what passion is as a human being.
Today, the center of Daniel Barenboim’s musical life is Berlin. Shortly after the Fall of Communism, he was tasked with reviving the Berlin State Opera, and it has flourished under his leadership. Today its resident orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, has garnered a reputation as one of the world’s finest concert ensembles. In the past 30 years, Daniel Barenboim has also overseen a complete, nearly half-billion-dollar renovation of the opera house, and the construction of a brand-new Frank Gehry-designed concert hall, Pierre Boulez Saal, at his music school, the Said-Barenboim Academy, named for his friend and fellow activist, the late Palestinian-American author and scholar, Edward Said. The Academy shares a mission with their West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to nurture peace in the Middle East by bringing together Arabs and Israeli Jews. And the past 20 years since the orchestra’s founding have, says Barenboim, been transformative for those who have been touched by the ensemble.
Barenboim: Close to 1,000 musicians must have come and gone, and I think hardly anybody remained with his original opinions or feelings or fears.
Daniel Barenboim believes that addressing such prejudices in the Middle East will be key to making real change, and he’s advocated tirelessly for the idea that understanding is the most fundamental tool for peace.
Barenboim: We have two people who are deeply convinced they have the right to exist on the same little piece of land, preferably without the other, and they don’t want to accept that this is not possible and that their destinies are inextricably linked. The destiny of Israel is inextricably linked to the Palestinians, and vice versa, and you cannot solve this politically and you cannot solve this militarily. You can only solve it by bringing people to understand, and there is no use speaking about one state solution or two states’ solution. This is a solution that has to come after the two people have understood that they have to accept the existence of the other in the region.
The West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which is based in Spain, has gained great renown and has performed throughout Europe, Asia, and the Americas, but they’re rarely invited to play in the musicians’ home countries.
Barenboim: We have many, many fervent admirers in Israel, and many fervent admirers in the Arab world, and many negative political views, both in Israel and in the Arab world, which makes me feel that something that we do must be right. I would be very worried if it was positive on one side and negative on the other. But since it is both in both, and we just keep going. In those things, I am very stubborn.
Daniel Barenboim does have a stubborn streak. He also has a reputation for being autocratic, mercurial, and controlling, but this all seems to work well for him as a conductor. Making 100 other musicians follow you requires confidence in your convictions.
Barenboim (in rehearsal): Please, please, don’t play before me! All the strings are playing so often ahead of me, but why?
Barenboim: You must be able to show and if it doesn’t suffice, to explain why, you know? The conductor does not have the luxury of trying things out like an instrumentalist. I can sit at the piano and try fast and slow and louder, softer, shorter, longer, all these things I can try, but I can’t expect an orchestra to do that. The orchestra wants to be shown how the conductor thinks it should go, and therefore, the conductor has to have a knowledge that is the right proportion of information and intuition. In front of the orchestra, if everything else fails, I must have the capacity to explain to the oboe player why the high point is in the third bar and not in the second bar. Intuition doesn’t play any role. I cannot communicate that only intuitively or with feeling. There has to be a certain amount of knowledge. Conscious knowledge. This is why it is very important to learn all those things in order to become a conductor, and that you are not automatically a good conductor because you are a great musician.
But Daniel Barenboim is that rarest of birds, a great conductor and musician, and a powerful advocate for change.