The Conductor: Daniel Barenboim

Daniel Barenboim, Conductor and Pianist Extraordinaire, Has Two Passions in Life: His Music and His Cigars
| By Mervyn Rothstein | From 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.

"I took the box with me to the rehearsal, and before it began I told him I had something for him. He was standing with his back to me looking in his briefcase, and he turned around and there was something in his hand. I gave him the box of Montecristo No. 3s and he gave me what he had brought for me--a box of Montecristo No. 3s!"

As he talks, Barenboim resembles nothing so much as a fervent Israeli politician. He is attired like one, in an open-collared white shirt and dark pants, and his intense, penetrating, almost Svengali-like eyes are redolent of the passion with which he approaches his most ardent cause: music. "I don't have the feeling that I use music to fill my life," he says, "but rather that I live in music. I obviously have my two feet on the ground, but I don't finish my music and think, well, now I'm going to start living. It is an absolutely integral part of my life, and it is the part of my life where I feel I can express myself completely, the part of my life that gives me fulfillment."

What is it about music that appeals to him so? In his 1992 autobiography, A Life in Music, Barenboim showed a penchant for philosophy and metaphysics, and his answer is very philosophical and metaphysical. Music is, he says, a matter of creativity and of the fourth dimension.

"First of all," he says, "music is an art that has the ability to take you totally away from the physical world. I don't mean this in a poetic sense, but in a very real sense. Music can mean different things to different people. For some it's a philosophical experience, for others it's a sensual experience or a mathematical exercise.

"Basically, music expresses itself only through sound. The essence of the music is in sound. Which means that a Beethoven symphony does not exist in the physical world at this moment as you and I are talking. It is only spots of ink on paper. It's only an idea of how it could actually come into being," Barenboim says. "Which means that when you actually make music, when you actually play a Beethoven symphony, you bring these thoughts, these sounds into the physical world. They were not there before, and they are not there afterward. A Beethoven symphony exists only every time an orchestra somewhere on the globe plays it. It doesn't exist just because it's been stored on a compact disc. That doesn't mean it's here. It's not like food that you put in a refrigerator that stays there until you open it. A compact disc is a record of one experience, one moment when the music was in the world. But basically that music is not in the world. It is the musician, and only the musician, who brings these notes into the world."

Then there is the element of time, or rather, of timelessness. "If you are really able to concentrate totally on it, to grab the sound and hold onto it the way you hold onto a rope when you go mountaineering, and if you stay fully attached to the sounds as they develop, as they unfold, you are basically coming out of time," Barenboim says. "You must be able to do it with all your faculties, physical and psychic, with total concentration. And suddenly, Beethoven's Fifth Symphony takes 33 minutes, and for those 33 minutes you are out of physical reality. Music gives you the physical and metaphysical possibility of totally detaching yourself from the world. As if you were able to fly."

But in all of this there is an essential paradox. "At the same time," Barenboim adds, "the laws that govern music are the same laws that govern nature, that govern thought, that govern feelings, that govern our own selves and our relations to other people, our relations to the universe. Therefore, while on the one hand, music allows us to get away from the world, on the other hand, if you are able to gain enough knowledge of the essence of music, you are better able to understand human nature and the universe through it. For me, this is the reason I feel I live in music. I would almost say I lead two lives, one in music and one outside music, but the music is really always in me, in the same way that when you are in love the person you love is constantly in you, even though they may be thousands of miles away."

A love of music began for Barenboim at a very early age. As a young boy, he met, was influenced by and studied with some of the great names in twentieth century music: Wilhelm Furtwängler, Edwin Fischer, Adolf Busch, Nadia Boulanger, Igor Markevich, Wolfgang Sawallisch and, of course, Rubinstein. Furtwängler, the legendary German conductor, called the young Barenboim a "phenomenon." Markevich, after hearing Barenboim play, predicted he would become a conductor (and indeed, in 1954, Barenboim at 11 became Markevich's youngest conducting pupil).

Barenboim was the classic definition of a prodigy. He made his international piano debuts in Vienna and Rome in 1952, at age 9; he debuted in Paris in 1955, in London in 1956, and in New York, with Leopold Stokowski, in 1957. The next year, he toured Australia. He made his first recording in 1954.

The life of a prodigy can be a difficult one; many burn out early and become very unhappy adults. But Barenboim considers himself lucky.

"I don't feel that because of having been active as a musician when I was a child I have missed out on anything," he says. "I feel I had a perfectly normal childhood. I went to school like everybody else. I always had friends of my own age. I think this is very important. The main problems of child prodigies are that they don't go to school very often and therefore don't learn how to live with other people early on. They don't get the necessary social climate around them and they also don't have friends of their own age. They live in an adult's life when they are children, and this is not very healthy."

Barenboim also realized from an early age that he wanted to conduct. His father taught him to play the piano with "the orchestra always in mind, with an emphasis on polyphonic listening and playing."

"I was in Salzburg when I was 9, and I went to watch the conductor's class," he recalls. "I was absolutely fascinated by the different sounds of the different instruments. And of course, the piano is also a very orchestral instrument, more so than a string or a wind instrument."

In his early 20s, Barenboim began to devote more time to conducting, and spent a decade with the English Chamber Orchestra. From 1975 to 1989, he was the music director of the Orchestre de Paris, devoting much time to contemporary works, especially those of Lutoslawski, Berio, Boulez, Henze and Dutilleux. In recent years, he has toured with the Berlin and Vienna philharmonics. He first conducted opera at the Edinburgh Festival in 1972 and has led performances of Wagner's "Tristan und Isolde," "Parsifal" and "The Ring Cycle" at the Bayreuth Festival since 1981.

His one cultural contretemps came in the late 1980s. In 1987, a conservative French government named him the first music director of the Bastille Opera, but two years later, before the new opera house had even opened, the new socialist government fired him.

Barenboim says he has no regrets over the ouster, especially since political changes have continued to trouble the Paris opera house. "In a way, it was a good thing it came to a clash so early on," he says, "because it would not have worked. You can see that nothing has happened there. They haven't solved their problems."

Only two weeks after the ouster, Barenboim had the last laugh when he was named the ninth music director of the Chicago Symphony, an orchestra with which he had had a long relationship as both conductor--since 1970--and soloist. He took over in Chicago in 1991, and soon after, took on the Deutsche Staatsoper, which critics say he has revitalized and which is playing to sold-out houses almost every night.

Throughout his years of conducting, Barenboim has maintained his solo career; he has also been extremely active as a chamber musician, performing often with such renowned string players as Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman and Isaac Stern. One of Barenboim's most frequent musical partners was his first wife, the late, great English cellist Jacqueline DuPré. He and DuPré met in 1966 at a party in London, where they played Brahms together; they married the next year. In 1971, DuPré, considered one of the finest cellists of her day, was stricken with multiple sclerosis. She spent the next 16 years in a valiant battle against the disease and died in October 1987 at age 42. Several years ago, Barenboim married Russian pianist Elena Bashkirova; they have two sons.

For many, a dual career as pianist and conductor would be overwhelming, with the time spent at one taking away from proficiency at the other. But to Barenboim, the careers are complementary. "They are similar in the sense that it is all about making music," he says. "They are different in that as a conductor you don't have the physical contact with sound you have when you play an instrument. But they complement each other because, through the experience of conducting, I have learned to listen to myself while I play as if I were removed. I listen to myself like I listen to the orchestra when I stand in front of the musicians. I think I am able to correct and change and develop my playing in a way I would not have been able to do had I not been a conductor. And the piano playing complements the conducting because it constantly gives me not only the feeling but the preoccupation with the physical qualities of sound.

"People forget that sound is not just a question of color; it's also a question of weight," he adds. "Sound has weight. And therefore, in the balance of the orchestra, in solving the problems of the balance of volume and weight, I know I have developed as a conductor in a certain way only because I have continued to play the piano."

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.

It is a love affair between audience and musician, between a man and his music. It is an affair he wants to continue and to expand.

"There's a lot of piano repertory I haven't played," Barenboim says. "When I took the positions with the Chicago Symphony and the Staatsoper, I made a conscious decision to diminish the quantity of my piano playing. It was just not physically possible to do it all. But I miss it. It's essential to me that I find a way to make more time for the piano."

Essential, like a good cigar.

Mervyn Rothstein is an editor at The New York Times and a frequent contributor to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator.