With Daniel Barenboim leaving the Chicago Symphony Orchestra after this season, the search for his successor is about to kick into high gear
Change is in the air at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and we're not talking tempos or keys. When Daniel Barenboim steps onto the podium at Symphony Center Thursday 22 and launches the musicians into the first movement of Falla's Nights in the Gardens of Spain, the clock will start ticking on his final season as the CSO's music director, a post he's held for 14 years. He's filled his curtain-call season with his favorites—Mozart, Bruckner and Beethoven—and on the nights he conducts and plays, the seats will be packed.
Barenboim's breakup with Chicago could be a painful one: It's been a long relationship that started years before he accepted the mantle of full-time maestro. Even though the conductor and pianist was officially crowned music director in 1991, he'd been guest-conducting the orchestra since 1970, and it was generally acknowledged as early as 1988 that he'd replace Sir Georg Solti—although those were some big shoes to fill. The CSO had became synonymous with the immensely popular Solti—whose reign began in 1969—and the brassy, bigger-than-life sound he pulled from its musicians. For many listeners, the orchestra reached its peak under the late conductor, who died in 1997.
The Solti-Barenboim baton-handoff wasn't perfectly smooth, says Henry Fogel, the former president and CEO of the CSO who was in charge when Barenboim began as music director, and who now holds those titles with the American Symphony Orchestra League. "There was controversy," he says. Some musicians and listeners wanted to keep the Solti glory days going; others were more willing to accept Barenboim's ideas of a less strident sound. "There were some people in the orchestra who found it frustrating; there were others who found it wonderful," Fogel says.
But Barenboim eventually won over most of the musicians and audiences through his simultaneous performing and conducting of piano concertos and his no-nonsense, flowing interpretations of the standard repertoire. Whoever replaces him will find an orchestra that is still capable of the rafter-rattling sound pioneered by Solti, but one that also brings out the delicacy in Beethoven and Mahler that Barenboim can convey. He possesses an enviable mastery of classical music's core Austro-German repertoire—the Mozart, Beethoven and Brahms that make up much of the CSO's programming.
"When he's up there conducting, he's not alone," says David McGill, the CSO's principal bassoonist. "He's going right through Mozart's score and Mozart's right there with him." Cellist Brant Taylor seconds that, saying that one of Barenboim's strengths is his "encyclopedic knowledge" of some composers.
Under Barenboim's leadership, the CSO also performs more 20th-century and contemporary music, something for which Solti, who identified with few living composers, had little passion. He's been aided in this regard by Pierre Boulez, the CSO's principal guest conductor. A major composer, and one of the world's finest interpreters of contemporary music, Boulez has been allowed to program whatever music he wants when he is on the podium.
Barenboim's championing of living composers like Elliott Carter and Augusta Read Thomas (the CSO's official composer-in-residence since 1997) has raised the orchestra's profile as an outpost friendly to music that is often scorned elsewhere. The classical audience can be comically conservative and resistant to new music that's a lot more dissonant than Beethoven. But Barenboim and Boulez forged ahead and brought the CSO into the modern era.
Still, it's inaccurate to say he had an agenda or set of goals, says Barenboim by phone from Berlin. "In music it doesn't work like that," he says, taking a short break from his constant rehearsing, performing and plane travel. On this day alone, the indefatigable conductor has led three rehearsals with the Berlin Staatskapelle, the opera company he's helmed, in addition to his CSO obligations, since 1992. "Many of the younger players who were there in 1970 grew older with me." It was an evolutionary process that was less about forcing his style on them as it was them getting acclimated to it. Barenboim has also hired more than a third of the orchestra's members, making the ensemble more a reflection of his taste than Solti's.
The problem now facing the CSO is replacing another music director who's become a familiar, admired cultural icon in Chicago. Finding a Barenboim clone is impossible, since there isn't anyone who has his set of gifts as an artist equally renowned as a pianist (he was a child prodigy who gave his first concert at the age of seven) and for conducting both opera and orchestral works. (When asked why he hasn't conducted more opera at the Lyric Opera and in America, he says, "Frankly, I didn't want to.")
As a globe-trotting, self-styled, musical ambassador, Barenboim sets the bar high for his successor. Born in Argentina and raised there and in Israel, with stints spent in Austria and France, Barenboim speaks seven languages and is a true citizen of the world.
Since 1999, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra he formed with Palestinian literary critic and scholar Edward Said has brought together young Israeli and Palestinian musicians. Barenboim has been outspoken in his criticism of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, and he brought the ensemble to perform in Ramallah in August. He also earned the condemnation of the Israeli government in 2001 for conducting music in Jerusalem by Richard Wagner—whose brilliant operas, Barenboim argued at the time, should be heard despite the fact that the German composer was a notorious anti-Semite and a favorite of Hitler.
What is the CSO doing to find Barenboim's successor? The process is shrouded in secrecy, and CSO administrators are only half joking when they talk about white smoke puffing from Orchestra Hall. Seventeen people sit on the search committee, including CSO musicians (one of whom is McGill), members of the Board of Trustees and CSO administrators. They've been traveling around the world to observe potential candidates, and are barred from publicly discussing the search's progress and who's being considered. The fact that the search has been going on for 18 months implies that there are few qualified and available candidates. Many conductors have more than one post at a time, which complicates their schedules and makes them less willing to take on the CSO job.
The search is further complicated by the need to find someone willing to take on the ancillary, non-musical responsibilities that come with the gig. Barenboim says he's leaving because music directors of major American orchestras are expected to help out by schmoozing with donors, and because he is not comfortable with the perception of classical music in the United States.
"I'm afraid I'm not very optimistic for classical music in America," Barenboim says. "They say that young people don't come to concerts, and you have to ask yourself whether the marketing efforts will keep bringing people to the concert hall." He has no patience for marketers who miss the point of the music (although he says this isn't a criticism of the CSO's marketers). The music is about "the depth of the human condition," he says, and that's what should be used to draw people to it.
"You cannot use artificial means and tell the public, 'Come! You won't get bored! It's not as bad as you think! It's quite entertaining!'" Barenboim says. Working in this system doesn't appeal to him, but he realizes that's the drill and he's powerless to change it.
Barenboim will persevere for one more year, and he's making the most of his swan song: This season's concerts feature many composers—such as Mozart, Carter and 19th-century Austrian Anton Bruckner—of whose music he's considered a master interpreter. You'd better catch him while you can: Barenboim doesn't like stints as a guest conductor, preferring to spend more than a week (the standard length of visits for guest conductors) working with an orchestra. It's highly possible this is the last time you'll see him swing a baton in Chicago.
But the man's not concerned with how he'll be remembered by Chicagoans, who memorialized Solti with a huge sculpture of his head in front of the Lincoln Park Conservatory. When asked if he'd appreciate the same treatment, Barenboim erupts.
"Absolutely not! I don't want anybody to celebrate me, I don't want anybody to thank me, I don't want anybody to say how wonderful I am, or how terrible I am. I just want everybody to leave me alone, and enjoy this season of making music with the orchestra. And in the same quiet way that I came, I will leave."
Daniel Barenboim begins his final season with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Thursday 22 and leads a free concert in Millennium Park Sunday 25.