Fifty years of musical mastery

Daniel Barenboim plays Carnegie Hall half a century after his debut.

daniel berenboim 88 (photo credit: )
daniel berenboim 88
(photo credit: )
Daniel Barenboim thought back to a half-century ago, when he was living in Paris at age 12 and auditioned for conductor Leopold Stokowski. "He said, 'That's very good. Would you like to play in New York?"' Barenboim recalled. "What kind of a question - I said of course." Stokowski then asked the young Israeli what he wanted to perform. Barenboim suggested Beethoven's First Piano Concerto. "He said, 'Very good. You will play Prokofiev,"' Barenboim remembered, chuckling. "I had to learn it for the occasion. In fact, I've never played it since, I'm sorry to say." Barenboim, who had turned 14 by the time of the performance, triumphed when he played Prokofiev's First Piano Concerto with Stokowski and the NBC Symphony of the Air. On Saturday night, January 20, Barenboim became the first to play at Carnegie Hall on the actual 50th anniversary of his debut. He has appeared in the hall more than 150 times, and on this occasion performed Johann Sebastian Bach's "The Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I". Carnegie Hall had said pianist Vladimir Horowitz also performed on his 50th anniversary, and even used his example to persuade Barenboim to make an extra trip to New York from Europe for the concert. But a check of records shows Horowitz made his Carnegie debut on Jan. 12, 1928, and played his 50th anniversary concert there on Jan. 8, 1978 - by then he would perform only on Sundays. Barenboim's Carnegie debut opened with a tribute to conductor Arturo Toscanini, who had died four days earlier. After the final notes of Siegfried's funeral music from "Goetterdaemmerung," the audience honored Toscanini's memory by not applauding. "What broke the silence was the appearance of Daniel Barenboim, a slim, erect, 14-year-old Israeli. After bowing in an almost military manner, the boy sat at the piano and, on exchange of signals with Mr. Stokowski, began an exhilarating performance," Ross Parmenter wrote in his review for The New York Times. "He scored a distinct success. He had the assurance and easy skill of one born to the piano, and, with his strong technique, the work presented no difficulties he could not solve. His playing had rhythmic impetus, but it was always well controlled." Parmenter did fault him for an encore of Bach's "Jesu, Joy of Men's Desiring." "It had little tenderness of feeling," he wrote. "It indicated the boy still has some growing to do in the directing of deepening insight." According to Carnegie, Barenboim has played there more than 70 times as a piano soloist and made about 80 appearances there as a conductor. He retired last June after 15 years as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, but remains general music director of Berlin's Staatsoper Unter den Linden, a job he's held since 1992. In November, New York Philharmonic music director Lorin Maazel said Barenboim should succeed him after the 2008-9 season. "I'm very flattered that a colleague thinks so well of me, but nothing could be further from my mind than this in the United States," Barenboim said during a telephone interview last month. He does have an important New York event coming up - his Metropolitan Opera debut is scheduled for December 2008 in Wagner's "Tristan and Isolde." "Jimmy Levine had invited me many times, and when I was in Chicago, I never had time to do that," he said, referring to the Met's longtime music director. Barenboim does not plan on doing more at the Met. "This is a one-shot," he said. "It's like drinking pure vodka. More than that makes you dizzy." He also is scheduled to conduct Wagner's Ring Cycle at Milan's Teatro alla Scala during the 2010-11 season and tour with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. He and the late Palestinian scholar Edward Said founded that group of Israeli and Arab musicians in 1999 in a gesture of peaceful coexistence in the Middle East. That orchestra just released a new recording of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. "The destinies of the two people are inextricably linked," he said. "Then, if you accept that, then you realize it is essential for everybody to reflect and to have an understanding for the narrative of the other, even when it is a contradiction for your own narrative. Therefore, ignorance of the other is not going to make anything any better." (AP)