NEW YORK - Being Daniel Barenboim gets you only so far in this town.
Barenboim's conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera on Nov. 28 - also his first time with a fully staged opera in New York - has been the talk of the opera world, but that doesn't make him invulnerable. He was shanghaied en route to his Tuesday-night performance of
Tristan und Isolde
by the New-York-cabbie version of "the scenic route," leaving him no time to even meet with leading tenor Gary Lehman, pressed into service when the cast's scheduled star fell ill.
Meanwhile, his personal secretary was standing at the glassed-in ticket office backstage at the Met - the one for Met employees, friends and artists - having to spell Barenboim's name three times to pick up seats reserved for friends and family - "He's the conductor! Tonight!" And that's hardly the worst of it.
"I've been suffering very badly from gout. I'm in quite a lot of pain," Barenboim, 66, explained, reclining in his dressing room. "And when I went to a rehearsal at Weill Recital Hall, I walked up to the front door, the guard greeted me by name, but said I had to walk all the way around the block to the artists' entrance. And I said, 'My leg hurts! Can't you help me?' And he said no, and that it was for 'your own security.' "
He's still steaming. But if there's one thing that Barenboim has done in his 58 years as a performer - starting as child-prodigy pianist first in Argentina, where he was born, then in Israel, where his family moved when he was 10 - it's show up, despite the hectic schedule he's kept most of his life.
His current run of activity began with a simple wish, made four years ago, to celebrate the 100th birthday of American composer Elliott Carter with a concert on the very day - Dec. 11, 2008, this Thursday - at Carnegie Hall. He phoned the hall, and the date was set. Being Daniel Barenboim makes those things easy.
Then Metropolitan Opera music director James Levine called in Barenboim's long-standing commitment to conduct at the Met following his 2006 departure from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Thus the current
In the meantime, Barenboim commissioned a new piano concerto from Carter,
, which he performed Wednesday and Thursday with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
And in a spare few hours tomorrow night, he'll play a full piano recital at the Kimmel Center with a finger-busting Liszt program, repertoire that typically is considered young-pianist music.
"Nonsense!" says Barenboim - which could be the attitude of one who is refusing to admit to time's passage, or who has evolved in ways that allow new approaches to old musical territory. Maybe both: Barenboim's schedule isn't as crazy as it looks. He has already played the Carter concerto at his home base, the Berlin State Opera (Staatsoper Unter den Linden), and he's played much Liszt in recent years. Some of the longer, brainier entries in his welcoming Web site,
, are versions of chapters from his new book of essays,
Music Quickens Time
(Verso Books, $24.95).
Tristan und Isolde
has been one of his specialties for nearly 30 years; some conductors might need meditation time before Wagner's five-hour opera - Barenboim needs an apple before Act I and a large orange juice before Act II.
This vitality is much like that of the Barenboim of the 1970s, the glamorous pianist/conductor who concertized with his brilliant wife, cellist Jacqueline du Pré (1945-87), and who, in the words of one critic, resembled a young prince dispensing musical caviar to his audience.
The current Barenboim is more public, a presence well beyond classical music circles. He embraced the Internet after taking his kids to see the 1998 Tom Hanks film
You've Got Mail
, but decided firmly that his Web site would be only about all manner of ideas, not commerce.
Most important, Barenboim has been fearlessly conciliatory in his views toward Israeli and Palestinian relations. His close relationship with the late Palestinian literary critic, theorist and activist Edward Said led to his formation in 1999 of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, in which Israelis and Palestinians perform side by side. Though Barenboim isn't one to turn his back on his previous self, Said clearly precipitated some deep changes in, and seemed to bring a new fire to, the middle-aged musician.
Music Quickens Time
, Barenboim dreams of a utopia in which Said is still alive. "He changed my life because he was the closest friend I've ever had. Through him I became more sensitive to the plight of the Palestinians . . . as well as colonialism and oppression. I remember him talking about . . . the fact that
is the result of African music gone to the Caribbean, an African procession from Havana, seen through the eyes of European colonialism."
You wonder if, in an increasingly terrorized world, Barenboim fears being the target of religious or political fanatics. He refuses to contemplate that.
"I don't believe in this security panic. It changes people's souls," he says. "America has never been so lacking in freedom of thought as now. All you have to see is the faces of the people in the airport checking your luggage, treating people as though they are guilty unless proven to the contrary. It's the policy of creating panic. It doesn't matter if it's to the right or to the left in the political sense. The climate is the same."
Ultimately, though, might these insights and intellectual travels make great differences in the way he conducts
Tristan und Isolde
? Before meeting him, I closely studied his 1981 DVD of the opera. The comparison showed how he has changed: While he once revealed the opera's drama through an intense orchestral sound, he now does so through the consistently combustible relationship between Wagner's words and his music. Because of that, even the most musically lean passages have a revelatory vitality of purpose. (No other current conductor does this so effectively.)
Barenboim hates looking back at past work, but this insight struck a chord, so to speak: Deeper knowledge of the German language - its meaning, and how the vowels and consonants relate to the sound of the notes - has made all the difference, he said.
"A young conductor told me that he was studying
but didn't know where to start. I said, 'Learn German.' I wasn't being funny. When you have the language, you also have the musical rubato," the ebb and flow of the tempo. "You can't make rubato against the language." The younger Barenboim delighted in contrasting dualities. Now he sees unity wherever he looks.
Intermission was ending. The orange juice was gone. "And you didn't ask me anything about Philadelphia!" Barenboim said, referring to his Philadelphia Orchestra appearances dating to the 1960s. "I could tell you great stories about Freddie Mann," who built the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Fairmount Park.
My jaw dropped at the lost opportunity. Barenboim grinned: "Too late!"