Barenboim in Berlin: another extraordinary era ends with an ode to joy

BERLIN — Daniel Barenboim is breaking up with me a second time. And it’s always the same old tune — Beethoven’s heralded “Ode to Joy.” 

Barenboim, the CSO’s ninth music director, concluded his 15-season tenure in Chicago with Ludwig van Beethoven’s monumental Ninth Symphony on June 16, 2006. Then on this New Year’s Day 2023, the Argentine and Israeli maestro, now 80, finished his 30-year tenure with the Berlin State Opera and Orchestra by leading Beethoven’s choral valedictory again. I was there both times we parted.

Barenboim’s break-up Beethovens, nearly 17 years apart, couldn’t have been more different — a measure of the gifted conductor’s evolving musicianship, always in the public spotlight.

A piano prodigy whose 1967 marriage to British cellist Jacqueline du Pré minted the swinging-est classical couple in 1970s London, Barenboim was already an international celebrity when the CSO tapped him to succeed Sir Georg Solti, Hungarian by birth, and the swinging-est conductor in 1960s London.

Chicago’s progression from icon to icon wasn’t always seamless, with Barenboim seeking to reshape a celebrated orchestra he sometimes considered a brute, disciplined force into a flexible, spirited ensemble given to momentary inspiration. Admirers embraced Barenboim’s frequently shifting moods and colors — detractors chided them.

Barenboim met both camps with — how else to say it? — the same stern pout. Season after season, concerts finished with the conductor greeting the Chicago audience with chin up, lips stiff, arms astride, wrists tucked. Whether Symphony Center patrons were laudatory, as they so often were, or fixing a dash for the garage, as they often do, Maestro’s stare said, “Bring it on!”

That June night in 2006, we brought it on plenty, ovation after ovation, Barenboim’s Beethoven Ninth mighty enough to crack his stern visage just a bit — the CSO at Barenboim’s most spirited and inspired: whispered cellos introducing the finale’s big tune, cajoling basses arguing over it, choral might lashed back and shoved forward with trembling authority. Here was the CSO Barenboim had always envisioned — dynamic and propulsive, as Chicago prided itself, but in constant, challenging dialogue with itself, too. The evening Barenboim parted ways with Chicago, he seemed to be telling us, “This is who I am, what we should and could have been and what’s still ahead for me — with or without you.” Beethoven cloaked in a revenge dress.

Then Barenboim, the Chicago icon, skipped town to become a legend in Berlin.

Barenboim’s admiration for Berlin was always a tension during his Chicago era. Shortly after Barenboim was announced as Solti’s CSO successor, in January 1989, übermaestro Herbert von Karajan resigned from the Berlin Philharmonic in April; Karajan passed away in July, at 81. Berlin’s — and Barenboim’s — sudden sense of vacancy and opportunity grew even greater when its terrifying Wall toppled on Nov. 9, uniting the divided city’s east and west — and the whole of Germany — the week Barenboim was recording with its premier orchestra. East Germans streamed through the breach, then a couple hundred meters more, to the Philharmonie, for a celebratory Philharmonic concert three days later.  “Show us your papers,” the demand that East Germans once feared, became their free ticket for Beethoven, with Barenboim conducting from the piano — and cementing his primacy in Berlin’s artistic firmament.

Even with a new CSO contract in hand, Barenboim still sought Chicago’s permission to interview for the Berlin Philharmonic podium. When the post went to another conductor, Barenboim, in 1992, instead secured his Berlin presence atop the Berlin State Opera and its concert ensemble, the Berlin State Orchestra, the latter a frequent Symphony Center visitor as Barenboim sought to strengthen ties between his two artistic homes.

Today it’s difficult to overstate Barenboim’s stature in Berlin, particularly during the post-Chicago years when he emerged not only as a fully realized vision of his own conducting promise — a searching interpreter trusted by an orchestra honed to his musical instincts and lent the freedom to work within them, he newly unafraid to let brass and percussion push forward, Solti-style, the way Chicago favored — but also as a vibrant voice of conscience in Germany’s once troubled, then divided and now reunited, increasingly multicultural capital.

Everyone knows the old Karajan joke — the cabbie asks, “Where to?” and Berlin’s übermaestro answers, “No matter — I am in demand everywhere!”  These days Barenboim’s own Uber “Where to?” recommendations similarly prepopulate — the Berlin State Opera, of course, on the grand boulevard Unter den Linden (where “fares are higher due to increased demand”), as well as the Berlin Philharmonic’s home across town at the Philharmonie, which welcomes him as a revered guest several concerts a season. Or maybe Pierre Boulez Hall, the circular chamber-music space Barenboim created to remember his close friend, the CSO’s Helen Regenstein Conductor Emeritus, where Barenboim remains a frequent recitalist, also home to the West-Eastern Divan ensemble he founded with late Columbia University professor Edward Said to foster Israeli-Palestinian understanding through musical exchange. Even Berlin’s outdoor Waldbühne forest stage, which, last August, Barenboim and the West-Eastern Divan packed to its 22,000-fan capacity — the same way the similarly aged Sir Mick Jagger managed the week before (“It’s busy, fares are a lot higher than usual”).

On New Year’s Day, Barenboim and the Berlin State Opera and Orchestra’s Beethoven Ninth — five days before last week’s announcement of his resignation due to health concerns he had previously characterized as a “serious neurological condition” was breaking news on German screens and phones — turned out to be his final appearance as music director, officially unknown to the audience but somehow still intuitively known, given the conductor’s recent spate of cancellations (including an April concert that ended at intermission). The resignation is effective Jan. 31, with no more performances planned this month.

An ominous October tweet gave Barenboim fans, myself included, plenty of cause for worry: “I have lived all of my life in and through music, and I will continue to do so as long as my health allows me to. Looking back and ahead, I am not only content but deeply fulfilled.” When November plans for Barenboim’s 80th birthday celebration were scrapped, few Berliners figured they might see the conductor and pianist perform again.

So the first hush at the New Year’s Day Ninth wasn’t from Beethoven’s tentative cellos introducing the finale. It was among the orchestra and audience, seated and expectant before Barenboim’s empty stool, no music stand in sight (as if a score were needed) — merely a nearby bottle of Evian — an unsettling five minutes. Then came the stage announcement, and a collective sense of relief.

Yes, Daniel Barenboim is in the house. He will conduct. Please permit him a few minutes.

Slowly, carefully, cautiously from the wings, he emerged. Barenboim’s hand, grabbing the podium rail as he stepped into place, momentarily shook in a manner the baton exaggerated. And never again during the entire concert.

His was initially a spacious, serious Ninth — idling, even, at times — in the manner a conductor with trust in his ensemble, well earned and long established, might mark and outline rather than inhabit and propel. Reflective and tinged with a hint of sorrow.

Then timpani. Had we ever realized it’s right there at the start of Beethoven’s fourth and final movement? Pounding. Barenboim’s orchestra was hushed but its percussion emphatic, a forceful opening recalling the fateful chords of Beethoven’s Fifth — like a Mozartean knock at the door that ruins Leporello’s dinner. Bass soloist René Pape, a Barenboim stalwart in Berlin and Chicago, entered with the Commendatore’s fury — singing “Ode to Joy’s” words of brotherhood and resilience like a last invitation to repent. Camilla Nylund, the Ninth’s soprano, as she was in Chicago in 2006, softly floated her melodies with the sorrowful reverence of a requiem mass.

The end is coming, and so is Barenboim’s defining command — his conducting signature. I once dreaded it, then often, but now it’s fondly embraced — quick and emphatic: stern gaze, hand up, finger to his lips. That silent “sssh!”

In Chicago, I always misunderstood Barenboim’s “sssh!” as a sharp turn from the big moment — reigning in his CSO when we most wished to hear its brilliance. But, as time passes — over my decades with Barenboim as Chicago’s music director, these recent years in Berlin, where he’s the familiar cultural face in a city where I’m still finding my way, and where he has emphatically discovered his own — I now know that simple silencing digit means “Pay attention!”

“Above the stars he must dwell!” Barenboim’s Berlin chorus shouts, then falls quiet before what’s normally the biggest of Beethoven’s symphonic codas — but the orchestra is somehow fading away.

Except for the timpani — Barenboim’s deafening timpani — its brute force unleashed, the message unmistakable: to Chicago’s iconic maestro and Berlin’s legendary musical statesman, to the remarkable orchestras that he has embraced in both capitals and to so many audiences that still follow him wherever he goes.

Fate is pounding on the door, louder still, and one day we’ll all dwell together above the stars. But, right now, in Daniel Barenboim’s 81st year, he’s still strong, defiant and triumphant — that way he learned in Chicago.

Then Barenboim turned to his Berlin audience and smiled.

Bring it on.