at Orchestra Hall

February 27

Daniel Barenboim found himself in an enormous predicament recently. Chicago was to have been simply one stop, albeit an important one, on the international tour of his Orchestre de Paris. Sure, the local press would be adamant that he had secretly signed a contract to succeed Sir Georg Solti. There would be the inevitable comparisons of his repertoire and conducting style with Solti’s, and the unanimous cry that Barenboim wasn’t ready for Chicago. But the concert would still have come and gone with little notice or fanfare.

But in early 1989 Barenboim was suddenly fired from his job as music director of the new Bastille Opera, an episode Barenboim would sum up as “a chapter of lies and breach of contract.” Whatever the outcome of the mounting Paris controversy, one thing was sure–his appointment as music director of the CSO would give him more power in the negotiations. So the decision was made to move up the public announcement of his Chicago appointment, which Solti, not looking forward to being a lame duck in his final years here, had wanted to keep quiet for as long as possible. But even Solti could see that his friend was in trouble, and he used the announcement to cut his already short time in Chicago next season by two weeks (down to six). Solti decided, in effect, to share his music directorship with Barenboim for two seasons until Barenboim takes over in the fall of 1991.

Although Richard Thomas, chairman of the Orchestral Association, actually made the announcement, he was flanked by Solti, who canonized the controversial decision. Solti used the opportunity to praise his friend and the choice, and made reference several times that week to the fact that Barenboim, who is 46, had done a marvelous job refining the French orchestra that Solti had given up on and handed to Barenboim 14 years earlier. “You will hear what a first-class orchestra he has formed there when they come here next month,” he boasted. There it was–a musical icon offering a public-relations face-lift to a conductor generally thought of as immature and to an orchestra generally thought of as second-rate.

Meanwhile, Barenboim had held a Chicago press conference as the American leg of the tour began, two weeks before his concert date here. He fielded questions from a lukewarm press, but unlike the outspoken and controversial Solti, proved a master of Chicago-style rhetoric. “I have no definite ideas about American music,” he said, “although I have strong feelings about it.” He said the same of other topics. Then poor reviews began to chase Barenboim and his French orchestra across the country, and editorials began to lament the slipping of international orchestral standards when Solti leaves Chicago.

Barenboim finally ascended the podium at Orchestra Hall with a program that was all Debussy, all large works–a safe if not particularly balanced menu. The applause that greeted his arrival went beyond normal courtesy, enough to make one suspect that the house had been papered. That suspicion became more pronounced when it became apparent that the inner order that Debussy had set for his Images had been switched so that the loud climax of “Iberia” would conclude the work, which was sure to set off more applause than if the work closed with the more subtle “Rondes de printemps” (spring dances). Barenboim’s performance order totally altered the character and the symmetry of the work; “Iberia” has its own three movements, and Debussy wanted the two shorter works to frame it.

This fault aside, the articulation and execution of the pieces was far better than anticipated. From the opening notes it became clear that, while Barenboim had not made this usually very scrappy-sounding French orchestra first-class, he had worked a minor miracle. (I could make the usual jokes about discipline never having been very fashionable in France, but I’ll restrain myself.) Thus Barenboim clearly removed any doubt about his ability as an orchestra builder. The critical job of replacing key CSO players as they near retirement will fall to him, and if what he has done in France is an indication, it looks as though he will be able to make those replacements while maintaining technical excellence and section homogeneity. That is very important, because a great conductor does not necessarily make a great orchestra builder; some would fault Solti in this respect, and it is undeniably true that a couple of his key appointments–especially in the string sections–have been disasters. I would never question Solti’s ear, which is one of the best, but he is very impatient when it comes to auditioning players and has seldom devoted the kind of time to it that the CSO deserves. Since Executive Director Henry Fogel arrived here in 1985, he has gladly stepped into this process, making recommendations that a hurried Solti has often accepted. For example, coconcertmaster Ruben Gonzalez, a former concertmaster of the Syracuse Symphony that Fogel had managed, was hired in a last-ditch effort to satisfy Solti when auditions for that position proved fruitless. Although Fogel unquestionably engineered the Barenboim appointment, one could not imagine Barenboim deferring to Fogel on such matters. Barenboim’s contract of a minimum of 12 weeks of concerts here and two more weeks of filling administrative duties ensures that he will be in Chicago enough to be able to take his time with auditions. This is very good news indeed.

But what of Barenboim’s programming ability? If this concert is an indication, it is disappointing. What does it accomplish to have a huge overdose of Debussy, regardless of how well the works are performed? As an item on a symphonic program–particularly one that is well stuffed with the meat and potatoes of central European tradition (the Austro-German repertoire)–a large work of Debussy can clear the palate between works, or serve as a scrumptious dessert. A whole evening of Debussy has the cumulative effect of eating a box of napoleons. Even some Ravel or Faure would have offered the relief of a chocolate eclair.

Yet this kind of programming is a Barenboim trademark. If the music is important and varied enough–as when he performed all of the Beethoven piano sonatas here three years ago in several recitals–then such an approach can have tremendous value. There is enormous contrast between the earlier and later Beethoven works, and if that contrast is emphasized in the programming, great. But I would be an emotional wreck, and any sensitive pianist would probably be ready for a straitjacket, after a recital pairing two or three big late Beethoven sonatas.

What purpose does it serve to perform both Brahms piano concertos on the same evening, as Barenboim the soloist did here a couple of seasons ago? “You mean he didn’t conduct them as well? My, what modesty,” was the cynical response of one of Barenboim’s senior colleagues upon learning of this. Yet to open the CSO’s new season later this year, Barenboim will conduct all four Brahms symphonies in two weeks, along with the Brahms First Piano Concerto (conducted, not played, by Barenboim), Violin Concerto, and Clarinet Concerto (in the Berio transcription–for variety perhaps?). I cannot imagine to what purpose, other than to show that it is humanly possible. Great. Call Ripley or Guinness.

The $64,000 question is, of course, what kind of conductor is Barenboim? The answer must consider his piano career. There is no doubt that Barenboim is one of the finest pianists of his generation, indeed, one of the finest pianists in the world today. His command of the instrument is second to none, and he is the kind of pianist who loves to take chances, keeping listeners on the edge of their seats. But his interpretations, his musical vision are very uneven. He can play with astonishing and sensitive poetry in one piece, and then bang away ferociously and sometimes superficially in another. At his best he is unsurpassed. At his worst he is technically correct, but cold as ice.

He seems to be taking this same path in his conducting. Some have suggested that he became a workaholic when his late wife, the great cellist Jacqueline Du Pre, was stricken with multiple sclerosis in the early 70s. Perhaps. But one thing is certain: Barenboim has moved much too fast as a conductor, and has often tackled repertoires that he may have been ready for technically (some would question even that) but not musically. He has yet to reach the same musical height as a conductor that he has long enjoyed as a pianist. I have no doubt that he can attain that height as a conductor, and if he does while in Chicago, we could be in for some exciting years.

In conducting the Debussy program–at least Images, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, and La mer–Barenboim adequately solved all the performing problems of balance, articulation, and dynamics, although his sense of ensembling, especially among the strings, was consistently weak. This is the same problem that was so obvious in his October concerts with the CSO, although it was less pronounced in this program because the often nebulous character of Debussy can conceal inexact execution. I asked him about this problem at last month’s press conference, but he dismissed it as a matter of opinion. Opinion has nothing to do with it. Either the strings are playing their lines together as written by the composer, or they are not. It is not a question of whether or not a listener agrees with a chosen tempo or a style of interpretation, but whether a conductor can keep a section together. But perhaps this is a problem that Barenboim will strive to correct, even if he couldn’t admit it in public.

One of the things that Barenboim excels at–and here he has much in common with Solti–is revealing the basic structure of a piece. Both the inner and outer structure of La mer, for instance, were magnificently revealed. Also his sense of building tension to a climax and then releasing it is very refined and showed in virtually every piece, although I felt that the louder sections of “Iberia” got slightly out of control.

His interpretive style is flamboyant and emphasizes big orchestral color and sound–sometimes almost too much for Debussy. If your idea of Debussy is of subtle poetry and mystery a la the late Ernest Ansermet, as mine is, then Barenboim’s Debussy could be viewed as harsh. He doesn’t extend his dynamic palette in quieter sections nearly as much as in louder ones, and his range seems to be soft, loud, very loud, and louder still. At this rate the Barenboim era is bound to offer much to the CSO concertgoer who is hard of hearing.