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The Conductor: Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim, Conductor and Pianist Extraordinaire, Has Two Passions in Life: His Music and His Cigars
Mervyn Rothstein
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, Summer 96

The object in his right hand is a Cuban Hoyo de Monterrey, not a conductor's baton, but Daniel Barenboim feels equally at home with either.

Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and artistic director and general music director of the Deutsche Staatsoper in Berlin, smoked his first cigar when he was 14.

"It's a funny story," the 53-year-old Barenboim says, pausing to take a puff from his Hoyo in his hotel suite on Manhattan's East Side. A virtuoso pianist as well as renowned conductor, Barenboim is in New York for a solo piano recital at Lincoln Center; when it is over, he will return to Chicago for a month with his orchestra, then bring it east for concerts at Carnegie Hall in New York and Symphony Hall in Boston. His is a life in music, a creative life that began at age five in his native Buenos Aires when his Russian-Jewish émigré parents provided him with his first piano lessons, and blossomed at age seven when he gave his first official concert.

Music and a good cigar are Barenboim's two passions, and as the aromatic smoke from his Hoyo flows gently from his mouth, he begins his tale of how the two first intertwined.

"I had met Artur Rubinstein, the great pianist, when I was a child," he says. "He knew my parents in Buenos Aires. He would come and visit, and I would play for him. He was actually very instrumental in my career. He introduced me to the impresario Sol Hurok, who was his manager, and told Hurok to take me on. I would play for Rubinstein once a year. But I began touring, and two years went by and I hadn't seen him."

By this time, the teenage Barenboim and his family were living in Israel, where they had moved in 1952. "One day, Rubinstein came to Tel Aviv to perform," he says. "I went to a rehearsal. He was very happy to see me, and he told me to come to his hotel Thursday at 5 o'clock so I could play for him. He wanted to see how I was doing. Well, Thursday morning came, and I woke up with a high fever. My mother told me that I couldn't go to school and, of course, that I couldn't go to see Rubinstein. I said not going to school was fine, but I had to see Rubinstein. I had to play for him. We argued back and forth, and I won. At 5 o'clock I was at the hotel."

The teenager walked up to the concierge, who eyed him suspiciously. "I told the concierge that Mr. Rubinstein was expecting me. He looked at me cynically. 'Rubinstein is waiting for you?' he said. I said, 'Yes, at 5 o'clock.' And he told me that Rubinstein and his entire family had left in the morning for an excursion to the Galilee and had not returned. So I sat down and waited. I couldn't understand. I couldn't imagine that Rubinstein had not meant it when he had told me to come, or that he had forgotten me.

"I sat there for hours, feeling miserable. Then, about 8 o'clock, he and his family--his wife and two children--came into the lobby. He saw me, and I saw on his face a look of pain, of realization that he had forgotten this poor boy. He apologized profusely. He looked at me and said, 'You don't look well.' I told him I had a fever, and he told me I shouldn't have come. But I told him I had to see him, I had to play for him, so we went upstairs to his rooms and I played. I played for about an hour, Schubert and Liszt and Brahms." By the time Barenboim was finished playing, it was 9:30. "He told me I couldn't go home yet, I had to stay and have dinner with him. I was very happy, I was feeling elated. He thought I had played very well; he was happy to see how I had developed. I went downstairs to the restaurant with him and his wife and the children.

"He saw I still had a fever, and he said to me that with this fever, there is only one thing I should do: have a vodka. So he gave me my first vodka. And after dinner he gave me a Montecristo No. 3 Havana cigar. He said I should smoke it, and that with the vodka and the cigar by tomorrow I would be fine. By the time I got home it was one in the morning. I hadn't phoned my parents. They were so worried, and I came home smelling of vodka and cigars. And my father said, 'Where in the hell have you been?' I said, 'With Artur Rubinstein.' It was a little difficult for them to believe. But that's how I started smoking, and I've never actually stopped since."

It was a while before Barenboim had his next Cuban cigar. He couldn't afford them, and he didn't smoke too much as a teenager, but whenever he saw Rubinstein, the legendary virtuoso would supply his protégé with a good smoke. About a decade later, when Barenboim was conducting the English Chamber Orchestra, Rubinstein was the soloist. "He came just for me. I was very touched, so I bought him a box of Montecristo No. 3s," Barenboim recalls. "He smoked Montecristo No. 3s, and after a good dinner he loved a No. 2, the torpedo.

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