Daniel Barenboim: The maestro

From child star to virtuoso pianist, celebrity husband and conductor extraordinaire - everybody knows the Daniel Barenboim story. But have you heard his views on Ariel Sharon? Or how America turned music into background noise? Sholto Byrnes enjoys lunch with this year's Reith lecturer and discovers why he thinks an orchestra is the perfect model for democracy

Daniel Barenboim leans over the restaurant table, waving a post-prandial cigar. "As a guest," he says, in his softly accented English, "you accept the rules of the house. In an Arab house you will burp, because it is a compliment to the cook. In an English house you will not, you will control yourself."

The Argentinian-born pianist and conductor knows all about being a guest. For five decades, since his family emigrated to Israel when he was 10, he has been welcomed at the world's greatest concert venues. Hailed as a "phenomenon" when only 11 by the legendary conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler, Barenboim has spent his career on stage from continent to continent, acclaimed as one of the finest pianists of his generation and earning himself a place in the top rank of conductors.

At 63, he is a man on whom the mantle of "maestro" sits easily. He looks every bit the part in his flowing overcoat, wide-brimmed hat and cigar as we trudge through the snow on our way to lunch after a rehearsal at the Berlin State Opera, where he is chief conductor for life. But he is still approachable and easygoing. Several times in the restaurant, where he urges more and more food on me - "go on," he says, "you look like a dessert man" - friends appear by our table. "Daniel, we were wondering about tickets for tomorrow night," asks one. "The house is very full," he replies. "For myself, it's standing room only." The joke about his position on the podium takes a second to sink in. Then both men burst out laughing. "Very good, Daniel," says his friend.

In London Barenboim will be welcomed back to the Barbican on 21 January, when he will perform the second book of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier. It is, he points out, 50 years since he first played in London with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Festival Hall. The day before the performance, however, he will serve notice that while he may accept the "rules of the house" he is not afraid to criticise them sharply.

Barenboim is this year's Reith lecturer, and intends to use the role to deliver a series of home truths in Britain, America, Germany and Israel. As London's will be the first lecture, he will start generally, expanding on his view of the role of music in society. "Music education is much too poor, to put it politely," he says. "It would be more true to say that it is practically non-existent. I do believe that you live better as a human being if you have music in your world."

In the US, where Barenboim has been in charge of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra since 1991, he will attack that country's relegation of music to aural wallpaper. "America has played such a role in making music just background," he says. "I can't stand being in Chicago anymore and hearing the Brahms Violin Concerto in the elevator. Because that shows me that when they come to the concert hall they listen to it in the same way."

In Germany, Barenboim will speak about the necessity for people to take responsibility for both their thoughts and their deeds, rather than laying it at the door of government. "In view of German history," he says, "that's very important."

Finally, he will go to Ramallah, to talk about music being able to demonstrate diversity, and to Israel to lecture on the difference between power and strength.

These last two venues are highly significant in the development of Barenboim's public role. For years he was known for his music, and in Britain particularly for the romance and tragedy of his marriage to the cellist Jacqueline du Pré. But a chance meeting with the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said in a London hotel in 1993 led to Barenboim voicing his growing disquiet with the policies of the Israeli government. The pair founded the West Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together Jewish and Arabic musicians, and published a book of their discussions, Parallels and Paradoxes. Barenboim became increasingly outspoken, and denounced Ariel Sharon as "anti-Israeli" for his failure to acknowledge the true nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

In 1999, he was the first Israeli to offer to perform for free at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, but his efforts to promote harmony with the Palestinians irritated the Israeli right. After he played in Ramallah in 2002, the Jerusalem Post responded with the headline: "With friends like Barenboim, who needs enemies?" When he was awarded the Wolf Foundation Prize for Music in 2004, the Speaker of the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, said he would boycott the ceremony. At the award itself, the education minister, Limor Livnat, was so incensed by Barenboim's acceptance speech that she demanded the right to reply. Barenboim then responded to her reply, and one observer reported seeing the two continue to gesticulate at each other while the Israeli National Anthem was sung.

The maestro remains defiant. "So many of the Israeli policies are simply not intelligent, quite apart from the morality," he says. "You want a state for the Jews? Then why do you hang onto territories where there are no Jews, and artificially build settlements there? Why? What is the logic?" Barenboim draws a distinction between Israel pre-1967 and afterwards. Before that, he says, the Jews had been very successful in making the transition from being a minority all over the world to being a majority in their own state. "Then came the war of '67. Regardless of who started it, the net result was control of the West Bank and Gaza. But these territories were not given back. The sensitivity of how you deal with another minority was never even attempted, let alone achieved, in Israel. No one sees this dimension of Jewish history - that no people have the right to control another minority. Least of all the Jewish people."

Barenboim regards the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza as a step in the right direction, but sees this as a realpolitik gesture that is insufficient to bring lasting peace. "After nearly 60 years of the existence of the state of Israel I don't think you can pretend that there is no legitimacy to the narrative of the Palestinian people. But I have not heard Sharon or any other Israeli politician utter the word that would show that they understand their plight."

Quite apart from this, Barenboim believes that retaining the other occupied territories threatens the very existence of Israel as a Jewish state. "In Greater Israel, or whatever you want to call it, 50 per cent of the people are non-Jews. We don't have another five million Jews in Russia, or Australia, or Argentina who can come here. So how are you going to deal with that? It's so short-sighted. If there was a myth about the Jewish people that most of the world accepted," he says, "it was that they were intelligent. But I cannot, for the life of me, consider the current Israeli policies to be intelligent. So I think Sharon has done away with this myth."

Barenboim's determination to reach out to the Palestinians is admirable. One sometimes wonders whether he's a little too willing to understand, though. He is firm in his belief that the Palestinians' resentment is purely fuelled by the historical fact of their dispossession. "It has nothing to do with European anti-Semitism," he says; although it seems highly disputable that a different form of the same disease has not long formed part of the Arab, including the Palestinian, attitude towards Jews in the Middle East. (The infamous Grand Mufti of Jerusalem Amin Al Husseini, for instance, spent most of the Second World War preaching anti-Semitism as a guest of Hitler in Berlin, and as a youth had been jailed for instigating an attack on Jews praying at the Wailing Wall. But to the Mufti's younger relative, the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Al Husseini remained a "hero" to the last.)

Even when German anti-Semitism dares to raise its head again, Barenboim seems to be able to shrug it off. In 2000, there were heated discussions over the funding of the State Opera and another Berlin institution, the Deutsche Opera, headed by Barenboim's former protégé Christian Thielemann. The leader of the Christian Democrats in the Berlin senate described the choice as being between "the young Karajan, Christian Thielemann" and "the Jew Barenboim". When I raise this, Barenboim replies with excessive mildness. "There's all kinds of people," he says.

I ask him if he feels at all like Mahler, who declared himself "three times homeless: as a native of Bohemia in Austria, as an Austrian amongst Germans, and a Jew throughout the whole world". "I am an outsider everywhere," he says, "and I am at home everywhere. I choose, since I have the possibility, to put more weight on the second part. I could say that I'm a musician in Berlin, the capital of the country that murdered six million Jews; I refuse to forget and I refuse to forgive. But 60 years after the defeat of the Nazis, I as a Jew or as a human being have no right to distribute collective guilt. The only way that I can make my very small contribution to the hope that it will never happen again, is precisely by making music with this orchestra. And that's what I'm doing. I'm aware that hatred pays high dividends in excitement, but I feel happier thinking like this."

It's really no surprise that Barenboim has been comfortable making his home in Berlin, where he has lived with his second wife and the mother of his two sons, the pianist Elena Bashkirova, since 1991. He is a master at creating what is known as "the German sound", as I witness before lunch when he rehearses his orchestra. In certain passages he leans forward, tracing great, rolling waves with his baton. The orchestra responds by producing full, sustained phrases of enormous warmth, eschewing the highly accented attack often favoured by American ensembles. Within seconds of beginning Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, Barenboim has stopped his musicians. He wants pauses clearly articulated between the orchestral chords. At other points he rests his baton hand on his well-fed stomach, not beating time - an orchestra such as his can keep tempo without its conductor - but just gently shaping the contours he wants with his left hand.

"It has to be strong, not powerful," he says later, explaining his desire to produce a fullness of sound from his orchestra. "If you hit a note with power, you cannot sustain it. Therefore you are not strong. It's like Israel. I'm sure it has the capacity to win a war against nearly all the Arab states that surround it. But the Palestinian problem is inside, and a powerful army is no use there. So Israel is powerful, but it is not strong."

This is not the only way that Barenboim's conceptions of music and politics fit together. He speaks fondly of the pre-1967 Israel, secular and socialist. "In a moment of honesty," he says, "the majority of people in the world would not disagree with the idea of socialism, but with its implementation; because there comes a point when everyone thinks they are working for the government. But because the country of Israel was being created, you worked for yourself to create the state, and when you worked for the state that was for yourself as well." This perfect example of the cultured, comfortably-off socialist breaks off momentarily. "Would you like a cigar too?" he asks.

I ask him if he sees the orchestra as a social democratic model. "I said it to the cellos in the rehearsal this morning," he says. "Maybe you didn't hear it in German. I said: 'Here you've got the main voice. But then you must go back to the collective.' To play intelligently in an orchestra is the best lesson in democracy. It's like the oboes in a Brahms symphony - for eight bars the whole world listens to you, and 90 people in the orchestra go wherever you go. But when you are finished you have to go back into society. And if you don't know your place in society, you can never fulfil yourself as a human being."

Such talk, of society, of understanding the narrative of others, of tolerance even towards the intolerant, continues when Barenboim discusses his approach to musical scores. Those who argue for strict historical authenticity balk at his approach to playing Bach, for instance, to whose piano works he happily adds extra bass octaves. "You have to take into account that it was not written for the Steinway of the 21st century," is his response, "so I think it's perfectly legitimate so long as it fits stylistically. But all these rules about original instrumentation and composers' intentions - it has become an ideology. That's no less dangerous than a fundamentalist state. It gives an answer to everything, even when there is no question."

Likewise, Barenboim has no time for "political correctness", by which he means "the climate of governmental society deciding what is correct" - "it is not conducive to individual thought", he says. I ask if he feels particularly constrained in what he can say in America. "Yuh," he says, looking glum, "oh yuh."

With all his regular musical commitments, and guest spots elsewhere, such as La Scala in Milan (on which he says he has no designs, contrary to recent newspaper reports in Britain), and his forays into politics, how does he spend his spare time? "I talk to you," he jokes. "No, I find myself doing a lot of things now that fascinate me." Since deciding to step down from his Chicago post (which he will do this summer) he has spent more time at the piano. "And I've been able to occupy myself with the role of music in society. That's why I'm full of these ideas now, and why I'm doing the Reith lectures for the BBC. We always think we can learn from the world to make music better. But I think we can look at music in its many diverse manifestations to learn about human beings."

Even as a conductor, Barenboim says that he can still learn more. If one of his ideas doesn't work, he says, he's happy to try something else. This contrasts with the tantrums thrown by the previous generation of maestros, such as his predecessor at the CSO, Sir Georg Solti. "You can't put this in," says Barenboim, "but Solti could be very direct and his English was colourful sometimes. Once he said to an orchestra," - Barenboim imitates Solti's strident, pinched, Hungarian tones - "'You think I know fuck-nothing. I know fuck-all!'" He chuckles with abandon. "That really was the epitome of him," he says, weak with laughter.

That evening, I watch Barenboim conduct Mussorgsky's Boris Godunov at the Opera. In the penultimate scene, all the lights blow on stage, and the performance continues while stage managers heave lamps around the cast. The last scene concludes successfully, but some of the performers don't look very happy when they take their bow. Then Barenboim appears, and, ever the democrat, brings his orchestra out of the pit onto the stage as well. The applause rises at the sight of the maestro and his musicians. Barenboim, the outsider, has chosen to be at home at the State Opera; and Berlin, it seems, returns the compliment. m

Daniel Barenboim performs at the Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0845 1207500) on 21 January

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