MILAN -- No one was more surprised than Daniel Barenboim himself at the impromptu homecoming to Milan’s Teatro alla Scala as a last-minute sub just two weeks after he formally stepped down as the Berlin's State Opera's music director after 30 years.
A towering figure in classical music, the 80-year-old conductor and pianist got a call at 7:15 a.m. on Sunday with an unexpected invitation to conduct three Mozart concerts, after Daniel Harding canceled for family reasons. By Wednesday, Barenboim — who left his Berlin post for health reasons — was running rehearsals at La Scala, a theater where he worked for nearly a decade, as chief conductor and then musical director.
“It’s as if I had been away for one week. I was very touched, really,’’ Barenboim told The Associated Press, saying more than the faces, he found familiarity in “the sound.”
There is no question his health remains a chief concern after being diagnosed with what he has described only as a “serious neurological condition.” He moves slowly and takes his time standing up. People who have watched him in rehearsal, however, say his energy is apparent as soon as he picks up the baton.
Despite the illness, Barenboim is determined to inhabit the conductor’s podium as much as possible — even if it means doing so sitting down, which he did for a New Year's Concert in Berlin, and which he may do again in Milan. “We will take it day by day," he said.
Barenboim received a standing ovation and more than five minutes of applause at the end of Wednesday night's performance, which he conducted from a seated position. The musicians stomped their feet in appreciation as he came out for final bows.
“I know I am expected to say this illness changed my life. No," he insisted. “Things that were very important to me as a musician before are still as important. Things that were not important are still not important. I can’t say I feel perfectly, but I feel well enough to conduct tomorrow, and I hope Thursday and Saturday. And next we will see.”
Piano is another matter. He has only performed twice publicly in the last year, he said. If he plays in private, well, he wants to keep that his business.
What is clear is that at no time during his seven-decade career traversing the globe, commanding orchestras from Berlin to Milan, Chicago to Paris, did Barenboim ever consider slowing down his frenetic pace. That is until his health issues forced him to.
“You know, I never felt my age. I never took into consideration that I was not 20, or 30 or 40 or 50 or 60 or 70 anymore," Barenboim said. “I have been hit, but I feel well, and I can make music. I am very happy making music."
Giving up the Berlin State Opera, he said, saddened him. “But it was necessary," he said. “It is a full-time job. And this I can’t do anymore. I don’t want to do it anymore.”
Maintaining ties, Barenboim will conduct two concerts with the Berlin State Opera's orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, later this month, and looks to do more. “I don't need to hope. I will do it,” he said.
Barenboim made his first public performance at age 7 in his native Argentina.
His extraordinary biography traces a broad swath of the geopolitical history of the 20th Century, from his Jewish grandparents fleeing Russian pogroms in the early 1900s to his parents' decision to move with him to the newly created Jewish state of Israel when he was 10 because, he said, they wanted him to live “as part of a majority, not part of a minority.”
He first became aware of the persecution of Jews en route to Israel. His parents took the young Barenboim to Salzburg, for a master class, but would not allow him to accept an invitation to play in Germany because the memory of the Nazi Holocaust was too near. He still struggles to understand why Austria, Hitler's birthplace that annexed with Nazi Germany, was a yes, and Germany a no to his parents.
Fast-forward decades, and Berlin has been his home for 30 years, and his work reviving the Berlin State Opera, located in what is former East Berlin, is widely credited with relaunching cultural life in Germany after reunification.
Even against such historical sweep, Barenboim is troubled by the world around him. Putin’s war in Ukraine, which he struggles to comprehend. The state of affairs in Israel. And the decision by some in the West to isolate Russian musicians, which he does not see as justified. “Not all Russians are anti-Ukraine,” he said.
“Let’s face it, we don’t live in a very spiritual time nowadays. The spiritual dimension has diminished, in all ways," Barenboim said. “I think it is very sad, and I hope it’s only a transition. I’ve known the world since the 1950s. For better or worse, I have always been a very happy person to visit the universe. But it has become very matter-of-fact, I find. Very material.”
He believes people could find salve in music, but that many, even musicians, are too hurried to take time to appreciate it.
“People don’t know how to listen to music. They don’t have to know the intricate, technical compositional details. But you must concentrate when you listen. You can’t look at the phone and do other things," Barenboim said. “And I think you’re supposed to look for this spiritual condition that music can give you. It doesn’t come by itself.”
Barenboim is continuing his work with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which he began with writer Edward Said, with plans to conduct this summer in Salzburg and Lucerne, and the Barenboim-Said music academy in Berlin, which launched in 2017.
Both bring together musicians from countries that have historically been enemies, to promote dialogue.
He finds their level of cooperation exemplary, and is especially impressed by the students at the academy. He recounts recently watching a performance at the academy: a Palestinian student on the clarinet, an Israeli pupil of Ethiopian origin the first violin, a Syrian the second violin, an Iranian the viola, and the cellist was Israeli.
“To see this quintet, with what understanding of each other, and what each one is doing and contributing, was heart-warming," he said, pausing to consider. “Which means there is hope.”
Barenboim's third Milan appearance on Saturday, featuring three Mozart symphonies, will be live streamed on La Scala’s new streaming service, La Scala TV.