by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, July 3, 2006.
On June 17th, Daniel Barenboim ended his decade-and-a-half run as the music director of the Chicago Symphony with a gritty, impassioned performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Before launching into the work, Barenboim delivered a speech in which he reflected bemusedly on the business of conducting. The celebrated Argentine-Israeli maestro—who has held posts on several continents, maintained a virtuoso piano career, written and lectured widely, and led the remarkable West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, bringing together Israeli and Arab players—spoke aloud the prosaic paradox that so often puzzles newcomers: the conductor is the center of attention, yet he makes no sound. He is, Barenboim said, “permanently dependent on the ability and willingness of the musicians to play in a certain way.” A conductor deserves his title, Barenboim went on, only when he has acquired the players’ trust. Pride filled Barenboim’s voice as he declared that he had gained that trust—for much of his tenure, there was resistance from factions in the orchestra—and that he had just received the unofficial title of Honorary Conductor for Life. He then gave the downbeat for Beethoven’s D-minor Allegro ma non troppo. The sound that flowed around him, grimly eloquent at the outset and electrically triumphant at the end, drove home the point.
While most of us incrementally fall to pieces over time, conductors tend to get better with age. Eventually, their legend precedes them; the respect that they have accumulated over the years does as much work as the movement of their hands. This explains how the physically shattered, emotionally unstable Otto Klemperer was, in his later years, able to deliver one staggering performance after another; musicians wanted to write themselves into his saga. Claudio Abbado is another conductor who has recently ascended to the stratosphere, seemingly incapable of giving non-transcendent performances. Barenboim is now sixty-three, and, although he had gravitas even in his youth, something in his work has deepened.
I had an adverse reaction when I first heard the great Chicago orchestra under Barenboim, a decade ago. There was a crude and chaotic quality to the sound: you could still hear the vehement aesthetic of Georg Solti, Barenboim’s predecessor, but it lacked Solti’s precision. Barenboim conducted with a broad beat, trying at times for profound effects that either he was unable to articulate or the orchestra was unwilling to execute. Now he no longer pushes so hard, for his personality has melded with the orchestra’s. His musicianship is old-fashioned; he doesn’t go in for glossy perfection, instead favoring sinewy textures, earthy rhythms, freely singing lines. He is at his best in the Viennese classics, in Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, and Bruckner, where he sways to his heart’s content between song and structure.
His last three Chicago concerts, which took place on consecutive nights, featured not only the Beethoven Ninth but also the Ninth Symphonies of Mahler and Bruckner, plus Pierre Boulez’s “Notations,” Elliott Carter’s “Soundings,” and Beethoven’s “Choral Fantasy,” with the conductor at the piano in the last two. Nobody ever said that Barenboim was meek. The concerts caused considerable excitement in Chicago, even among those who had never loved the conductor. Some listeners resisted his habit of insistently programming the likes of Carter and Boulez; others resented his pro-Palestinian statements, or criticized him for failing to evangelize to younger audiences. Nonetheless, spare tickets were going for five hundred dollars and up. On the last night of the series, a young man was seen out on Michigan Avenue waving a fistful of twenties, to no avail.
The Mahler Ninth felt like a recapitulation of Barenboim’s Chicago career. The first movement was rocky at times, orchestra and conductor never quite settling on a central pulse—that stuttering-heartbeat rhythm that signifies the composer’s knowledge of his own approaching death. Yet the playing was passionate in the extreme. There was an engaging wildness in the middle movements, together with more disagreements about tempo. (Some musicians have long been frustrated with Barenboim’s habit of setting new tempos on the spur of the moment.) Finally, in the great Adagio that brings the symphony to a close, the picture snapped into focus; the heat of emotion remained, but the music coalesced into one long, glowing line. The audience contributed to the spell: during the tender cello solo that leads into the Adagissimo coda, an uncommon silence filled the hall, the sound of thousands holding their breath.
The Bruckner Ninth was cooler in mood, befitting a composer who carved out his music as if it were cathedral limestone. The performance advertised the fact that Barenboim has left the Chicago Symphony in splendid shape. People always marvel over the Chicago brass, and with good reason: they have no equal. Each time another f was added to Bruckner’s stepwise crescendos, you could hear the gradation clicking into place, and the sound towered ever upward without cracking. But the Chicago strings are also world-class these days. They have acquired that darkly throbbing tone that used to be the sole property of the Berlin Philharmonic. They seemed especially in synch with Barenboim’s roving beat; when he rocked backward on his feet, making the gestures of a drowning man, and then recovered to deliver a punching downbeat, they trembled and dug in with him.
The Carter and Boulez pieces were vividly executed, although neither ranks among the composers’ best. “Soundings” is quirky and jokey, while “Notations” is a feast of fabulous orchestration. Moreover, the choice of two acclaimed modernists who came of age before 1950 to represent the music of our time exposed one major limitation in Barenboim’s world view: he shows little curiosity about most contemporary music, and colleagues like Esa-Pekka Salonen and David Robertson leave him far behind in their quest for the new. Ultimately, Barenboim is a fiery traditionalist, who can revitalize the most familiar scores. There was nothing conventionally festive about his Beethoven Ninth; tension was maintained throughout, the bass Robert Holl struck a minatory tone in the first minutes of the finale, and even the closing recitation of the “Ode to Joy” had a desperate edge, as if the possibility existed that all men might not be brothers.
During the fifteen-minute ovation that followed the Beethoven, Barenboim went around shaking hands with—or, in many cases, hugging and kissing—all ninety-one members of the orchestra. In the process, an ovation that had initially been directed at the conductor became an ovation for the players, with waves of applause rising up for the longest-serving veterans. You forgot the maestro, and focussed on those who had made the sounds. Barenboim could not have made a more graceful exit.
The Hungarian composer György Ligeti, who died on June 12th at the age of eighty-three, was perhaps the most famous of living composers in his last years, yet he was reportedly haunted by the feeling that he would be forgotten after his death. He will not be. His legacy is a string of near-perfect pieces—among them “Lontano,” the Requiem, the Horn Trio, the Violin Concerto, and the Études for Piano—and the composer’s outwardly quizzical, secretly passionate personality is felt in every bar. Picking over a huge scrap heap of material, ranging from otherworldly avant-garde noises to fragments of Schubert and Brahms, Ligeti created works that resemble organic machines, as beautiful as they are alien. A long, painful illness prevented him from realizing his dream of writing an opera called “Alice in Wonderland,” stemming from his love of Lewis Carroll. But his entire output is like the Alice stories come to life: the music that plays on the other side of the looking glass, mocking and transcending the ordinary world.