daniel barenboim a towering maestro held back by illness

Daniel Barenboim, a Towering Maestro Held Back by Illness

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This was supposed to be a time of celebration for Daniel Barenboim.

A renowned pianist and a titan among the world’s conductors, he was scheduled to lead a highly anticipated new cycle of Wagner’s “Ring” this fall at the Berlin State Opera, a herculean undertaking seven years in the making. He had expected to take that company’s orchestra, which he has led for three decades, on tour in Asia. And he had planned to perform works by Chopin and Beethoven at a concert in Berlin for his 80th birthday on Nov. 15.

Instead, Barenboim has been sidelined by illness — which he has described as a “serious neurological condition” — forcing him to cancel those plans along with months of other scheduled engagements. Once one of classical music’s busiest performers, he now finds himself, on doctor’s orders, largely confined to his home in Berlin. He has cut back on his study of musical scores, his friends say, and he plays the piano less frequently.

The absence of Barenboim, a towering figure in classical music for decades, has brought into focus his singular stature and power. Many of the institutions he leads, including the Staatskapelle Berlin (the pit ensemble of the State Opera) and the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which became internationally renowned ensembles under his direction, have scrambled to find to find substitutes as they wrestle with the uncertainty of his condition. He is scheduled to return to the podium in late December, but his friends and colleagues worry that illness may prevent him from keeping up the frenzied calendar he once relished.

“He’s not very happy at all to see a figure like him weakened in any way,” said Antonio Pappano, the music director of the Royal Opera House in London and a Barenboim protégé. “It doesn’t compute somehow. He’s a dragon slayer. Always has been. So it’s very unusual.”

Barenboim’s friends and relatives say that, in the coming months, he hopes to return full time to his posts. Even from a distance, he remains engaged with the institutions he leads, discussing plans for upcoming seasons and offering opinions on conductors and composers. On good days, he ventures away from home, for meals and concerts. He watched a rehearsal of “Das Rheingold” at the State Opera in September, and recently led a master class for young pianists at the Barenboim-Said Akademie, a music conservatory in Berlin that he co-founded.

“He definitely expects to be back; I don’t think there’s any other option in his mind,” said the violinist Michael Barenboim, one of his sons. “You never know with these things. But I don’t think he has any doubt.”

A representative for Barenboim said that he was not well enough to grant an interview or to respond to written questions. His health woes have consumed much of his attention over the past year; he canceled performances in the spring and summer as he recovered from surgery and grappled with circulatory issues. In October, he disclosed his neurological condition and said he was taking time off to “focus on my physical well-being as much as possible.”

“Music has always been and continues to be an essential and lasting part of my life,” he said in a statement in October. “I have lived all my life in and through music, and I will continue to do so as long as my health allows me to.”

Barenboim has achieved a rare status in the performing arts: Beyond his musical achievements, he is also an influential public figure. Born to Jewish parents in Argentina, he has sought to use music to bridge political divides; in 1999, he founded, along with the Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, the Divan Orchestra to provide a forum for young Arab and Israeli musicians to play together.

“You could call him one of the very few atomic reactors in classical music, in a positive way,” said Michael Haefliger, the executive and artistic director of the Lucerne Festival in Switzerland. “There is always something happening. He is always moving the world. He never stands still.”

His influence is perhaps most visible in Berlin, where he has built a vast cultural empire since taking the podium of the State Opera in 1992.

During his tenure, he has brought the Staatskapelle to new heights, frequently leading international tours, and securing hundreds of millions in government grants to finance his ambitions. He persuaded officials to build the Pierre Boulez Saal, a Frank Gehry-designed hall housed in the same building as his conservatory. And he pushed a costly renovation of the opera house’s main theater that was finished in 2017. The State Opera now has 587 employees and a budget of more than 81.4 million euros ($81.6 million).

There have been troubles along the way, but Barenboim has maintained his grip on power. In 2019, members of the Staatskapelle accused him of bullying; later that year, though, the opera house, saying that it could not verify the accusations, extended his contract through 2027.

Even as he grappled with back pain and diminished energy in recent years, he pushed forward with a busy schedule of conducting and performing. He entered 2022 with pomp, leading the Vienna Philharmonic in its annual New Year’s concert.

Soon after, his health began to deteriorate.

In February, he had surgery on his spine and canceled two weeks of performances. In April, citing circulatory problems, he canceled a series of engagements; in May, he withdrew from a planned European tour with the Divan Orchestra.

By summer, he had regained enough energy to join the Divan Orchestra on another European tour, performing works by Ravel, de Falla and Smetana.

“To finally be able to stand in front of these young musicians again, who are so full of energy and passion for music, fills me with great excitement,” he said in a statement before the tour.

In August, during a stop at the Lucerne Festival, he sat in a dressing room backstage, seemingly exhausted but telling friends he was determined to perform. His speech was slow and his gait shaky. But when he walked onstage, he led the orchestra with intensity and focus.

The superstar pianist Lang Lang, who joined the ensemble on the tour, his first with Barenboim in a decade, said that it was difficult to see his longtime mentor in such a fragile state. To honor him, he played one of Barenboim’s favorite pieces, Debussy’s “Clair de Lune,” as an encore.

“It was really a hard moment,” Lang said. “I just couldn’t believe he was in this condition and he was still onstage.”

Lang said he was relieved that Barenboim was now taking time to rest. “I’m worried that even though physically he’s not up to it, he still wants to perform,” he said.

“Even if for some reason he doesn’t come back to the stage, he’s already the most legendary musician who’s living today,” he added. “There’s nobody like him.”

By the time Barenboim got to Salzburg, Austria, where he was to lead the Vienna Philharmonic in a program that included the second act of Wagner’s “Parsifal,” his condition had worsened. He was visibly fatigued and seemed to have difficulty commanding the orchestra, according to reviews of the concert in late August by European critics.

A week later, he announced he was withdrawing from a new production of Wagner’s four-opera “Ring” in Berlin, which was meant to be a defining project of his tenure, one that had been planned for and by him. He said at the time that he was “deeply saddened” but that he had to prioritize his health and “concentrate on my complete recovery.”

His withdrawal disappointed the musicians of the Staatskapelle and raised concerns about when he might be able to return. Barenboim has recently sent private letters to the players expressing his regret for having to cancel.

Jiyoon Lee, the Staatskapelle’s first concertmaster, said that the orchestra was hopeful Barenboim would soon return.

“It’s like 30 years of marriage,” she said. “We’re very loyal to him. We know that he is not a person who is replaceable.”

Barenboim’s allies seem willing to allow him time to recover, even as some commentators have suggested it might be time for the State Opera to consider a change in leadership. German cultural officials, who play a critical role in managing the opera house, did not respond to requests for comment.

It is not the first time Barenboim has faced questions about his capacity to lead. In 2019, at a news conference announcing the extension of his contract with the company, he brushed aside concerns about his age, saying he was in good health and would stay on so long as he felt well. (He will turn 85 the year his contract expires.)

“If my strength declines,” he said at the time, according to news reports, “I will go immediately because I don’t want to be kept here as a relic out of loyalty.”

Matthias Schulz, the State Opera’s managing director, described Barenboim as a transformative figure who had turned the Staatskapelle into one of the world’s top ensembles.

He said the company could handle the uncertainty of his illness for the moment by tapping into its network of renowned conductors. But he said that approach might become difficult in the long term, given the planning and preparation that opera demands.

It’s absolutely not clear if he can come back or not,” he said. “We are aware of that. We have to be aware of that. And also Daniel is expecting us to be aware of that.”

In recent days, Barenboim has welcomed a stream of visitors to his home, including Pappano, Gehry and the violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter. In his conversations, he is animated and forthright, his friends say, reminiscing about his encounters with the eminent pianist Arthur Rubinstein, or passionately explaining rhythmic styles in the music of Chopin.

“He always says that music is not work for him, otherwise he would have stopped long ago,” Mutter said. “It’s just his life. He is music. And expressing himself through music is second nature.”

Barenboim has remained intensely interested in the “Ring,” checking in with colleagues at the State Opera on the progress of rehearsals before opening night, and then performances afterward. He is also eager to return to the stage: His next engagement is a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony at the Staatskapelle’s New Year’s concert.

“He tells me, ‘Everybody says to me, I have to be patient, but I am not,’” said Christian Thielemann, one of the conductors who replaced him in the “Ring” production this fall and who has been mentioned as a possible successor at the State Opera.

Barenboim, Thielemann said, is accustomed to “doing three things contemporaneously” and being in control of his life. “He’s not in a good mood,” he added, “and I can understand him.”

In the summer, when he was feeling somewhat better and looking ahead to his 80th birthday, Barenboim wrote down some early memories: of growing up in Argentina, playing his first concert at 7 and falling in love with the piano.

“Music is not a profession, it is a way of life,” he wrote. “It is how I have lived all my life: in and through music.”