Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Little Danny Barenboim

A consolidated version of this will eventually be a JT column...

I'm probably the only member of my generation who still believes that high art is high and low art is low and the separation between art and entertainment exists for a good reason. The reason just became President. You might think concert halls and art galleries are pretentious, but everybody has to aspire to greater understanding of the universe, and if you think your understanding is just fine as it is, you'll find that there are many things in life you don't understand, and you'll gravitate to figures who claim they have all the answers.

In ways not even religion can, great art keeps us honest in a universe about which we know nothing. Once art shows you how much bigger the universe is than your little corner of it, your curiosity in the face of it becomes a virus from which you hope you can never be cured. Their works are the only miracles which the average human being is ever allowed to see, and any number of pilgrimages become worthwhile at any expense, because with every miracle, you're brought closer to their creator. 

Few composers understood the miraculous like Anton Bruckner, for whom every moment of music was an affirmation of a gigantic Christian faith. When Mozart was happy and sad, it was beautiful, but Mozart was happy and sad in the same way a claims adjuster is. But Bruckner's happiness sounds like God's creation of the world, and his anger sounds like hellfire. 

Jews, at least until my generation, love classical music. American goyim go to historical societies, but Jews have no long heritage of power to celebrate, so they celebrate the best of other people's heritages - theaters, museums, operas, concerts...  but Jews hate Bruckner. Mozart, with his practical everyday joys and sorrows, is a music any Jew can love. Bruckner, with his soul-states and nature obsessions, is as un-Jewish as it gets. Mention Bruckner in my family and you'll get an eyeroll as long as his Eighth Symphony. Everything about Bruckner - the spirituality, the extremes of violence, the lack of concern for everyday emotion, the organ-like sound, is the opposite of qualities we associate with Jewishness.

So of course, the only Jew who loves Bruckner as much as me is Daniel Barenboim - the brilliant and quixotic Israeli musician loathed by Israelis for his pontifications favoring the Peace Process and against Modern Israel. To many Israelis, the Berlin-dwelling Barenboim is the personification of the self-hating Jew. 

Musicians don't get more gifted than Barenboim, a pianist and conductor of gigantic intellect and energy, who at 74 just conducted Bruckner's 9 symphonies at Carnegie Hall in nearly as few days. All nine are 70-minute musical cathedrals whose every second is larger than life.

Barenboim is usually at his best in such larger-than-life pieces: Bruckner, Wagner, Liszt, these are composers whose gigantism plays to both his intellectualism and his showmanship, and were today's opera singers better than they are, Barenboim might be remembered as a greater Wagner conductor than any German. Next to Wagner, Barenboim is best known for his endless profusion of Beethoven performances. Full cycles of all 9 symphonies and 32 sonatas, once a decade, in every major world capital. And yet, Barenboim strives for so much philosophical depth in Beethoven that the dynamism and passion which overthrew world governments often goes missing. It's almost as though Barenboim mimes emotions he doesn't feel, thoughts he doesn't think. He bends the tempo to point up details that Wilhelm Kempff and Otto Klemperer make you hear by doing nothing at all, he dampens passions at places where Artur Schnabel and George Szell throw all of themselves into the music. 

But on Friday Night (yes, shabbos), Barenboim gave a Bruckner 7 for the ages. I had not thought it possible to love music like that anymore, I was a sixteen year old kid again - I couldn't breathe, my heart moved up into my esophagus, my eyes watered - had a friend been there with me, I'd have given them a bruised forearm from gripping it so hard. 

There are so many moments in live performance that cannot be duplicated on record, and how much moreso is that true with Bruckner's titanism? Those long dramatic pauses after thunderous climaxes mean so much less if you don't get the full few seconds of orchestral reverb in a concert hall. Those gigantically loud chorales sounding so brassy on record become almost psychedelic in concert.  You can't necessarily hear the woodwinds supplmenting the brass's vibratory overtones two octaves up, but you can feel them, and they peak out at you like beams of iridescent light. In the not-as-strong final movement, Barenboim effortlessly glided over the construction flaws with tempo adjustments that seemed just perfect, and after one false climax, Barenboim held the orchestra in silence for an unmarked, nearly ten second, grand pause while none in the audience dared to breathe. 

Barenboim's Bruckner 7th was so full of those unduplicable moments that I can't possibly describe them all except to say that the next night's performance of Bruckner's even greater 8th symphony was as devoid of them as the night before proliferated with them. There were a few great moments in the opening and finale, but this was a different Barenboim, trying to awe us with his infinite depth rather than move us with his infinite gift. The tempos in the 7th were slow, fast, everything in between, and varied from phrase to phrase. The tempos in the 8th were leadened down with rocks. The famous 25 minute slow movement became a weird case of schizophrenia where the first half was stretched to fifteen minutes and the second half compressed into ten, with hardly a scintilla of the musical tension which made Barenboim's previous performance so awe-inspiring. The high-wire risk act of the night before became a dull ritual, a religious rite in which we all had to worship at the temple of this musical monolith.

There is something in Barenboim's makeup that compels him to act like a more serious musician than he is. In person, Barenboim is a voluble personality - a charismatic extravert with a fantastic sense of humor, a prodigious worker whose intensity is matched by a furious temper - in other words, typically Jewish... And yet, the humor all too present in his life all too rarely shows up in his musicmaking. Many masters for whom humor is a stock and trade like Haydn, Berlioz, Janacek, Mahler, Stravinsky, Bartok, Shostakovich, Messiaen, Ligeti, Schnittke, are composers he either plays selectively, rarely, or not at all. When he plays unavoidable composers who have humor coming out their pours: Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Richard Strauss, Ravel, even Liszt, he does his best to make their music as serious as he possibly can. In those few moments when he lightens up and plays Johann Strauss or the Spanish music of his Argentinian early childhood, he becomes a completely different performer, a showman to the manner born. Not only does he bounce around like a Vaudevillian, but the music-making takes on a lightness, an elegance, an enjoyment, that his high-priest manner rarely allows himself otherwise.

High art is necessarily more serious than low art, but in no way does either great art or seriousness preclude humor. And yet, seriousness to Barenboim seems to imply the opposite of humor. Barenboim has made an entire religion out of musical seriousness. He apparently gave an impassioned defense of high culture at Carnegie on the night of Trump's inauguration, and everyone who heard it found it incredibly inspiring (except Jay Nordlinger, a conservative classical music critic who tries to put an ideological bent on his reviews... yawn...), yet when he resigned from the Chicago Symphony, perhaps his principal complaint was that he felt forced to talk about music, which he does with such eloquence that the whole world loves him for it.

I don't know what it is that makes Barenboim feel the need to be so much more stodgy and traditional than he really is. What we do know is that this Bruckner cycle, an unprecedented feat in American musical life, was a celebration of Barenboim's 60th anniversary as a performer at Carnegie Hall - when he was just 14 years old.

Imagine a 14 year old Barenboim, not only subordinating his natural effervescence to the piano's impossible demands, but seemingly taken under the wing of every serious European musician of his time: Furtwangler, Klemperer, Barbirolli, Kubelik, Celibidache, Edwin Fischer, Rubinstein, Arrau, Markevitch, Boulanger, even the young Herbert Blomstedt. How much seriousness he did not feel did Barenboim have to counterfeit from so young an age? Leonard Bernstein, no child prodigy he, let his endless musical energies proliferate in every direction he could find, engorging himself upon music like a gourmand. Simon Rattle, no genius he, is guided as a conductor by natural enthusiasm for whatever music captures his fancy.

The young Barenboim, who surely was genius enough to compose were he determined to, became only a performer. He became one of the great classical music performers of this or any time, but he also became a caricature of a great classical performer, who overwhelms those who enter his musical temple with his profundity of aim. Were he to enjoy himself, were they to enjoy themselves, perhaps they might catch a glimpse of young Danny in the few years before his Carnegie debut, playing piano in the sweltering Jerusalem summer for his family's livelihood, his father wrapping his knuckles with a ruler for not paying sufficient attention during their piano lessons, overwhelmed with a desire to go outside and play football with the other Jewish refugee kids. But as he got older, Danny probably learned that a certain kind of girl loved the kid who could play anything on the piano and could speak eight languages as a party trick. And as he got older still, he realized that postwar Europe would bend over backwards for famous Jews in manners that neither Israel nor even America ever would. And then, older still, he realized that Europe was not only better than America at providing for the rich, but providing for the poor as well, without realizing that this comfortable European pastorale was made possible in no small part by American defense bases and systems on their soil. Older still, he sees his homeland, hobbling and weary from fifty years of self-defense, Rabin shot dead for pursuing peace, and the entire country going mad from peace being so close at hand yet so far, and he becomes not only an advocate for Israeli peace, but an advocate against Israeli society. A man as famous and venerated as Barenboim has no way to empathize with any struggle that isn't larger than life. The larger-than-life revolutionary struggles of Palestinians appeal to him in a manner that the everyday struggles of people who simply want to feel safe never can. He speaks out against Israel, and he becomes more than simply a musician, he becomes a world hero.

But beneath the hero, there is little Danny Birenbaum, who probably grew up to be an advertising man in Tel Aviv and now has an apartment across from the Tayellet on the Tel Aviv shore. He rebelled against his father and gave up his dreams of pianistic glory, but he's always had an IPO subscription and occasionally plays chamber music with old friends. Rather than marry the great cellist of his generation, he married an abrasive girl from a Kibbutz in the North who wanted a guy who could give her a life in a city. They had three kids, one of whom is a part-time filmmaker who works as a camera salesman in Brooklyn, another works as an engineer near Haifa, a third died during an operation in South Lebanon. All things considered, Danny Birenbaum hasn't had the worst life, but the fact that Daniel Barenboim almost became him fills him with revulsion. If Daniel Barenboim ever acknowledged that an ordinary life might be a satisfying one, the entire reason he's lived his life as he has would unravel. 

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