Like his father Daniel, the violinist Michael Barenboim is adamant that music cannot be separated from the world around it. Ahead of his Wigmore Hall recital debut, he meets Jessica Duchen for lunch at The Waterway to tell us why
I’m lunching with Barenboim. Michael Barenboim, that is: violinist, quartet leader, sometime concertmaster of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and, of course, son of Daniel Barenboim. At 30, he seems a chip off the old block: a bright conversationalist, interested in everything, continually aware of the confluence between art and life that music so often personifies.
He studied philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris – and though he left after two years to devote himself to music, he still espouses a philosopher’s approach to life (which produces some interesting moments for our ‘In Person’ questions at the end of this article). As for his playing, his performance of Boulez’s Anthèmes II for solo violin and live electronics at the Proms in 2012 left a lasting and profound impact upon this listener. It’s the sort of music that has to be performed by someone who understands it profoundly well and can communicate that effectively to the audience. And it proved a revelation.
On a friend’s recommendation we’ve come to The Waterway – a stylish bar and brasserie at the side of the Regent’s Canal, tucked away in a Little Venice backstreet, that does nothing by halves. Barenboim and I feast on outsize salady starters, magnificent mains – my guest goes for steak and chips and I enjoy a (desperately worthy, but delectable nonetheless) quinoa salad topped with half a shedload of grilled halloumi.
It’s officially ‘modern European’ cuisine – and Barenboim, along with his elder brother David (who is a hip-hop producer) grew up with French food. He was born in Paris; his mother is Daniel Barenboim’s second wife, the pianist Elena Bashkirova, daughter of Dmitri Bashkirov, the celebrated pianist and pedagogue from Georgia.
His earliest musical memories, as one may well imagine, are lost in the general flood. He had, however, just one chief teacher throughout his studies from his mid-teens onwards: Axel Wilczok, one of the concertmasters of the Berlin Staatskapelle, whom the youthful Barenboim first met when Wilczok coached the violins of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 2000 and the two ‘clicked’.
‘I have to thank the WEDO for this,’ Barenboim says. The magic ingredient was simple but massive: ‘He can basically give you that real motivation to want to play the violin, which is not as simple as it sounds! It’s so much work, and so much of it is this gruelling technical work which is not really much fun at all, but he has the quality of making you want to do this.’ As for his parents, ‘I’d play for them once in a while, but for the day to day things they trusted my teacher.’
‘Music has been treated like a luxury item, like a Gucci handbag, which it’s not’
Deciding to pursue music as a career was, naturally, a biggish deal, and for some while his attraction to philosophy proved serious competition. Many of us, reading the writings of Barenboim senior, think of the legendary conductor and pianist as virtually a philosopher as well as a musician. That approach – exemplified in his book Everything Is Connected – has certainly rubbed off on his violinist son.
‘I like the idea that music is not separated from the world or our life or society – that art in general and music in particular is a very important part of human living and social interaction,’ he says. ‘It’s been treated rather as a luxury item, a bit like a Gucci handbag, which it’s not. It’s never been like that and there’s no reason it should be. In any way that art expresses itself it’s always very human and at the centre of social interaction.’ His father, he says, in that book is addressing the question on an individual level, ‘but on the social level it’s a very important medium and it’s been neglected a lot – music education in particular. These things go together.’
It’s clear that although Barenboim’s repertoire encompasses everything from Bach to Brahms to Schoenberg, it is contemporary music that is his greatest passion; and he has had plenty of contact with Pierre Boulez in person. ‘I worked with him on his own pieces, and also the Schoenberg Violin Concerto, which I play a lot,’ he says. ‘He gave me more than a helping hand with that. What I found really interesting was that he did not treat his own music any differently from that of Schoenberg. His approach is exactly the same. He sees the music, and he sees what it means. And in the end he could give you very pragmatic ways of solving certain problems. Often he’ll say something that seems completely obvious after he’s said it, but in such a way that it makes an enormous impact and you wonder why you hadn’t come up with it before.’
It was Schoenberg that first opened Barenboim’s eyes and ears to contemporary music. ‘If you really like Schoenberg, then you start studying Webern – and if you study Webern, that’s the key to open all music after the Second World War,’ he says. But what of those who still fight shy of new works? What would he say to encourage someone to conquer fear of the unknown? ‘There’s no other way than going to the concerts.’
‘One has to be very aware of the fact that there is no period in history when art has not been contemporary. This is the first time that something described as contemporary is not being played or looked at much. It’s a very odd thing. Of course when things are new, some are not good, some you don’t like, and this is a time when there’s no one big idea – everyone is going a little in their own direction – so it’s also hard to judge. But there’s no other way: you have to hear music regularly and get used to it. Creating familiarity through actually experiencing it is the only way.’
Music for peace? ‘We never believed any of that…’
Experiencing the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra from within – the organisation founded by Barenboim senior and the writer Edward Said, aiming to bring together young musicians from all over the Middle East, Israel and the Arab countries alike – is also an eye-opener, Barenboim suggests. Often the WEDO can sound like ‘Orchestra Barenboim’ – a group of musicians so finely attuned to its conductor that it can do his bidding at one tap of the baton. ‘That generally means there was a lot of rehearsal in the beginning!’ Barenboim says, with a grin. ‘We work very, very hard, because we have to.’ The orchestra meets only for a contained period in the summer and occasional projects in between, so time is of the essence.
He has been a core member of the WEDO for more than 15 years and, inevitably, has been watching the changing state of the Middle East. As the UK parliament votes to bomb Syria, rarely has the ideal of ‘music for peace’ seemed quite so hopeless.
‘We never believed any of that,’ Barenboim admits. ‘Because really, if you want to solve a problem you have to figure out the cause of it and change that and then the problem goes away. But just by playing a Beethoven symphony – it’s an important medium of human expression, but this kind of conflict has to be solved on the ground by the people who are there. Music is not going to help them, however well we play.’
Back in 2005 the WEDO gave a concert in Ramallah, which was filmed and is available on DVD. Today, that would be impossible, Barenboim says. Indeed, they cannot currently go to any of the countries from which their Middle Eastern members are drawn.
‘We always hope that in the future we can repeat something like that Ramallah concert – but it’s a long time ago and the climate, both political and social, is much less favourable now. Which means on the one hand that we need projects like this orchestra even more – and on the other means we can’t go there. There’s no way, it’s impossible. Nobody will accept it.’
The members of the orchestra itself are the exception. ‘The people who come to the orchestra are generally people who want to be there, so they already are more open,’ he says. ‘We’re not unearthing radicals from both sides and turning them into something else – if they have any interest in the project, that means they already have some sort of inkling, even if in a limited way, that something more is there than what they know.’
He reflects, with bitter irony, that since the orchestra was created – and hailed around the world for symbolising hope – the actual situation between Israel and the Palestinian territories has deteriorated dramatically. ‘There comes a point where you can’t continue like this,’ he remarks. ‘I thought that point already came a long time ago – but it keeps on. The thing is, this is not a situation that can continue forever. At some point it will have to change, and when that happens, if people are not prepared to change it actively, it will change in a way that will not be nice to watch. The danger is that if the time comes, the situation is not tenable any more and nobody’s ready, it’s going to be a bloodbath. I hope that that can be avoided.’
‘The string quartet repertoire is the best’
Barenboim père’s educational work extends to the new Barenboim-Said Akademie Berlin that is being built next door to the Berlin Staatsoper, including a new performance space – the Pierre Boulez Hall – designed by Frank Gehry, the latter slated to open early in 2017. The plan is to offer three years of music-focused eduation to around 100 students from the Middle East: ‘The idea is they’re going to be taught not only music but also philosophy classes, history, literature: a more complete education than just instrumental and other music lessons. They’ve started a pilot project with ten students – and it will grow organically in time.’ A Berlin resident himself, Barenboim hopes to be involved in this. He currently lives in Wilmersdorf with his wife, the Russian pianist Natalia Pegarkova (who runs a music school), and their one-year-old son.
Solo work takes up most of his time, though. He tries to learn two or three new concertos every season, he says: for next year there’s Ginastera, for the composer’s centenary plus the Glazunov (‘terribly difficult!’) and then the Korngold: ‘It’s cool, no? I think it used to be more popular – Heifetz used to play it.’ The critics hated it, of course. ‘The critics hated The Barber of Seville, too,’ he laughs.
When he’s not learning concertos, he loves his string quartet, the Erlenbusch Quartet: ‘We play very varied repertoire,’ he says. ‘We don’t play a great deal, but when we do, it’s something different every time. I always claim that the string quartet repertoire is the best; I don’t know why it should be, but whenever composers sit down to write quartets, they make it their very best efforts, with more richness and complexity perhaps than anything else.’
Wigmore Hall ahoy
Over dessert – substantial quantities of lemon cheesecake for Barenboim, and affogato, vanilla ice-cream sluiced in strong espresso, for me – we meander happily through topics from pipe-smoking (which he enjoys in moderation) to the teaching of his grandfather, Bashkirov – ‘He’s over 80, but he has such energy. He’s so into it, he can just go all day!’ And, of course, favourite violinists: he names Nathan Milstein as the ultimate for him. ‘Every time I hear a recording of him, first I get frustrated that I can’t play like that, and then I just relax and enjoy the greatness of it.’
He can’t relax too much in the season ahead. January finds him in Rome, playing the Schoenberg Concerto with Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia. Anthèmes II is proving a calling card that he plays frequently all over the world, and he’s preparing a solo recital programme including alongside it Bach and the Bartók Solo Sonata – ‘A pity it’s so difficult! But it’s a sensational work, probably the outstanding solo violin piece of the 20th century.’
First of all, though, he is making his recital debut at the Wigmore Hall just after Christmas, performing all three Brahms sonatas with the pianist Denis Kozhukhin. ‘I’m really looking forward to that,’ he says. ‘It’s a fantastic hall: great acoustic, very warm, and also very beautiful, which is also important.’
His tool for all of this is a Stradivarius of 1708, ‘Le Loup’: ‘It has a very fine, brilliant sound, in the way a diamond is brilliant, but without losing any depth or fullness of tone,’ he says.
But if you were wondering what it’s like to grow up as the son of Daniel Barenboim, that’s the one thing you won’t learn about today. ‘I can’t compare that with another situation, so it’s impossible to answer!’ he smiles. ‘But I don’t have the feeling that I’m in any way strange or abnormal. So that’s OK.’
Michael Barenboim and Denis Kozhukhin play the complete Brahms violin and piano sonatas at the Wigmore Hall on 27 December at 11.30am. Booking here.
Michael Barenboim and Jessica Duchen had lunch at The Waterway, 54 Formosa Street, London, W9 2JU
If you could only play one composer from now on, who would it be?
What would be your ideal violin, whether or not you already have it?
I’m very happy with the one I have.
How do you relax?
I love playing snooker, but I never have time and I’m terrible at it.
What makes you happiest?
That’s a very strange question and I don’t know the answer. I guess you can’t do one thing that makes you happiest unless you leave out lots of other things which also make you happy, but wouldn’t be the happiest… [Editor’s note: never ask this question of a former philosophy student]
Do you think classical music needs to be saved?
It’s not that it needs to be saved from some apocalyptic catastrophe – but it’s what we were talking about earlier regarding contemporary music. Art has to be alive. If art is dead it means nothing. It doesn’t mean nothing to play Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms, I love playing them, but you cannot expect an art form to survive if it exclusively relies on past achievements. It has to be something in the present; it has to be happening now. That’s why it’s important to have musicians who play contemporary music, people who compose it and, very importantly, people who programme it.
If you could change something about the profession or its training, what would you choose?
Part of the reason that people don’t play contemporary music is that they are not taught how to play it, they don’t see interest aroused by it and they don’t come into contact with it. You can spend four years at a conservatory and if you just do the bare minimum you might come across two or three contemporary pieces, but basically you can wade your way through almost without any. And that’s appalling. If it continues like this, then we really have a problem. That has to change. And of course one needs more familiarity with new pieces by hearing them regularly in concert.
You’re king for a day. What do you do with your power?
I’d probably think about it for so long that I wouldn’t come up with anything at all. But if I were a wizard, I’d make myself a snooker champion.