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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

(continued from page 3)

These days, Barenboim spends four months a year in Chicago, five months in Berlin and a little time touring. "I don't travel so much anymore," he says. "The touring I do is very limited. The life of a traveling virtuoso is much harder."

His two major posts are very different, but he has the same goals for each. "I want to create a meaningful balance between the well-known repertoire and the essential new works," he says. "I try to look on the old masterpieces with new eyes and the newer pieces with the experience of the old. I think very often contemporary music has had difficulty asserting itself because the conductor, the orchestra and the audience lack familiarity with it. A complicated contemporary piece needs more than one hearing. People are very impatient with music in a way that they are not with the other arts. If you go to a museum, you don't expect to see a masterpiece in every painting. But when people come to a concert, they want to hear only masterpieces. And that's not possible."

The reasons behind the impatience, Barenboim and many observers agree, is the troubled state of classical music in the United States. They point to a lack of serious musical education in the nation's schools and a lack of government interest--situations about which Barenboim is very distressed, and very eloquent.

"There is simply not enough music education," he says, "which means that music is not an inner necessity of the population, and therefore it is too expensive. If there was music education, and people grew up with classical music, it would become a necessity for them and there wouldn't be all these problems. There is also no government subsidy for music to speak of, either federal or state. When governments subsidize something, as those in France or Germany do, for instance, it's not only the money they give you that matters, it's also a signal they send to the population that this is something that is considered important for the life of the people of that particular country."

When it comes to cigars, and especially with public acceptance of them, Barenboim can be equally impassioned. "The way American people are dealing with cigar smoking, and the way in which it is limited in public places, is against all the principles of American democracy and freedom of thought," he says. "I think people forget that a cigar is, let's put it conservatively, less unhealthy than cigarette smoke. This is a pure leaf that burns and has no paper in it. I find the smell of cigarette smoke abominable, which is not the case with a good cigar. When I go into a room full of cigarette smoke, my eyes really can't take it. It's almost like cutting onions. But I never get that with cigars. I think the phobia against cigars in America comes from the years [in which there have been] no Cuban cigars available and people got used to smelling very low-quality cigars. There's nothing that smells worse than a bad cigar. But there's nothing that smells better than a good cigar."

For Barenboim, pretty much the only good cigar is a Cuban cigar. "Basically I smoke Hoyos and Cohibas," he says. "I like robustos, and when I have the time I like the Esplendidos. And Especials also. And I smoke the Hoyo Epicure No. 2. The robusto is my favorite. I really love to smoke the Esplendidos, but for that you need a free evening." He has tried other cigars. "There are good cigars from the Dominican Republic and Honduras," he says. "Occasionally, I smoke a Rafael Gonzales. But essentially it's just Hoyos and Cohibas."

A cigar, he says, "is very relaxing. I don't smoke out of nervousness. It's a sensual pleasure. I like the taste. And I like to hold it between my fingers." He likes them best with lunch or dinner. "A meal for me is incomplete without a cigar," he says. "After a good meal, it's essential, especially with coffee. I love good coffee--not American coffee, but espresso--and I think coffee without a cigar is like being dressed in a wonderful suit and shirt and not wearing a tie. The tie belongs there, and so does the cigar."

Cigars, Barenboim believes, can be beneficial to his health. "On the few occasions when I have been overweight and have tried to lose weight, a cigar has helped," he says. "I've never really gone on a diet, but I would try to be careful and skip a meal, usually lunch. So I would have just a salad or fruit, but if I then had coffee and a cigar I could sort of fool myself into thinking I had had a good meal."

Though Barenboim has accomplished much in his long dual career, many goals remain, as both conductor and pianist. As a conductor, he says, Bach is a principal aspiration. "I haven't had time to occupy myself with the Bach Passions. I've never conducted the St. Matthew Passion or the St. John Passion or the B Minor Mass. I would really like to do them, but I don't want to just program them and do them. I need time to prepare them, to study them."

With the piano, he says, the prime mission is to do more. His concert last October at Lincoln Center, as part of its Great Performers series, was a step in that direction. More than 2,000 people packed Avery Fisher Hall to watch him display his expressiveness and his technical virtuosity in a program of Beethoven, Schoenberg and Brahms. He elicited bravos from a tough New York audience for his interpretation of a difficult 12-tone Schoenberg work. After he ended the concert with the Brahms Piano Sonata No. 3, the crowd gave him a standing ovation; he responded with five encores. Only when, amid continuing applause, he smilingly and gently put the top down on the keyboard did the audience grudgingly agree to go home.

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