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CULTURE | 17-04-2021 08:29

Daniel Barenboim: tireless maestro won’t let pandemic slow him down

Argentina-born maestro has been on stage for 71 years and says he is always ready to "start again from scratch."

It takes more than a pandemic to slow down Daniel Barenboim, the legendary pianist and Middle East peace activist, who has been on stage for 71 years and says he is always ready to "start again from scratch."

Ever the plain speaker, the Argentina-born maestro is not hugely optimistic about the twin passions in his life: classical music and the Israel-Palestine conflict. 

"The importance of culture and music has been decreasing over the last 40 years... Sometimes we have forgotten that the spirit of the human being needs to be fed," said the 78-year-old during a visit to Aix-en-Provence, where he was recording alongside another legendary pianist and fellow Argentine Martha Argerich for its Easter Festival, forced online this year.

"The main problem for the future of musical life is not the post-corona situation, the problem is that there is no musical education in schools."

Barenboim, who was partly raised in Israel, is even more dismissive of the prospects in that part of the world, where he says: "There is actually not one person on either side that takes to heart the future, and how can we learn to live together."

In 2007, Barenboim became the first person in the world to hold both Israeli and Palestinian passports, having founded an orchestra and musical academy with Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said aimed at fostering Middle Eastern talent. 

'The greatest gift'

But faced with the gloom, Barenboim remains tireless. 

His day job as musical director of Germany's state opera and orchestra, the Staatsoper and Staatskapelle, which he has held for 29 years, may have slowed over the past year, but he has used the time to record his fifth complete Beethoven sonatas, launch an online music festival and direct several streaming concerts.  

He embodies restlessness. 

"I hate the word career, I don't like it," he says. "A musician never arrives, routine is his greatest enemy. Every time I play, I learn something new, little connections... 

"If I played a Mozart concerto yesterday and I have to play it again today, I have to start from zero and this is the greatest gift a human being can have."

His efforts to share that gift include establishing a music-focused kindergarten in Berlin and presenting a series of YouTube videos about famous composers, "5 minutes on...", that have racked up hundreds of thousands of views. 

Indefatigable he may be, but Barenboim's combative style is chafing a little against the delicate sensibilities of the current era. He welcomes the push for greater diversity in classical music, for instance, but warns against it leading to tokenism. 

"There should be more black musicians no question. There should be women conductors, of course no question. The mistake is to say 'We have a free date... we must get a woman.' No, we must get the best possible candidate and if it is a woman, we must take her. [Anything else shows] a lack of respect to the woman herself."

'Very uncomfortable'

He also found himself brought up on charges of bullying colleagues at the Staatskapelle in 2019. He put them down to his "impatient" outbursts and they were ultimately dismissed. 

Today, he recognises that "the definition of how to deal with others has changed all over the world", and says "I obviously regret it" if he has hurt anyone. 

But he finds political correctness hard to stomach.

"The main difficulty for me with it is that it forces people, before they say or do anything, to see how it will look... not to think 'I have an inner need to say this.'"

He recalls his own harsh musical education – under storied French teacher Nadia Boulanger – with fondness. 

He remembers world-famous tango composer Astor Piazzolla, then a fellow student of Boulanger, in tears after she told him he would never be more than a "second-rate Stravinsky."

But he says it was also Boulanger who told Piazzolla to work with the music from his own country and develop it, which is precisely what made him a star. 

"She taught in a very uncomfortable way, which is necessary," said Barenboim. "I don't believe in comfortable teaching."

He takes a similarly uncompromising look at his own future. 

Though he has been given the baton for life in Berlin, he says: "I don't want to stay like a relic of the past... If the orchestra changes its mind... I will free them of this decision.

"But so far, it seems to work."

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by Rana Moussaouri, AFP

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