Welcome to Sticks and Drones, the offbeat and probably irreverent new blog about Conducting and all its foibles co-authored by myself and my colleague Ron Spigelman. Much thought has gone into what should be my first official post and I have decided to make this a tribute to one of the great musicians alive today, my friend, colleague, and mentor Daniel Barenboim.
I first met Daniel in September 1992. At that time Henry Fogel was the Executive Director of the Chicago Symphony. Henry had seen me conduct in an League of American Orchestras (nee ASOL) Conductors workshop, and knowing that DB wanted to be more involved with young conductors he invited me to come to Chicago and audition for the Maestro. I found myself in front of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago in an audition with two other young conductors. Frankly, I thought my audition was a bomb. Afterwards Daniel talked to the three of us, and he was most polite. He said he didn’t want to make a decision right then, that we were all talented, yadda yadda. As he was talking my heart sank lower and lower, because I truly believed I had blown the opportunity to work with this incredible musician by turning in a very sub-par conducting audition.
That night I attended a CSO concert. Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra and Symphony #2 (I think – memory is a bit hazy on the 2nd work offered). From my vantage point smack dab in the middle of the first balcony, definitely the best place in Symphony Hall in Chicago, the experience was amazing. Danny and the band were on! My heart continued it’s downward spiral – what an opportunity to blow! The plan for the evening was to hear the concert and then go out with a bass player friend of mine to catch up (read: drown my sorrows in enough Tequila to cause an Agave shortage). At the end of the concerto I decided I was going to go back to my hotel, take a shower, and prepare for a long and dangerous Chicago outing. But when I stood up to go I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Martha Gilmer, Artistic Director of the CSO. She said “Come with me.”
Rather bemused I followed her. About 2 minutes later I found myself in Daniel’s dressing room. His words – “I want you to come here and work with me and the CSO.” Needless to say after that encounter I did indeed try to cause a shortage of the wonderful Agave plant. I also did work with Daniel for some 10 years.
He is an amazing conductor, whether you agree with his music making or not. Honestly the music the two of us make is extremely different. We come from different backgrounds and interests – i.e., he has championed the music of Wagner, Bruckner, the second Viennese school, Boulez, and Carter, seven composers of whom I have not performed one single piece. None-the-less, it is the process he employs when thinking about music that astounds me. He draws on a depth of understanding that is way beyond the ramblings of most mere mortals. The two times in that entire 10 year experience with him when I actually won an argument I consider to be two of the finest and most satisfying moments of my life.
Now as good as a conductor as he is he really is a much finer pianist. That is not to denigrate his conducting, but to venerate his pianism. He is the only working pianist for whom I will eagerly volunteer to turn pages – the most thankless job in music today. To sit next to him and watch this most natural piano technique is a revelation. For example, the wonderful site YouTube has this video of DB and Lang Lang working on Beethoven’s Appassionata. Now nothing against Lang Lang, who has a natural pianistic technique I could only dream of, but up against DB this kid is completely out of his league. In that he has a lot of company. DB has been playing the 32 sonatas of Beethoven since…. well….. in utero. Watch and learn.
Something else about Daniel – many people don’t realize that he has a hilarious sense of humor. This comes as a surprise to most people who don’t get the opportunity to see it. But I have been a witness to some side-splitting moments that remain some of the funniest I’ve had on earth. In that mode I recommend this video which, especially for those of us who know him, I think is rather apropos. It’s also the funniest 14 seconds of video I’ve ever seen. Somehow I think this would amuse him.