The Artist as Leader

Originally published by The Guardian, here.


This afternoon at the Royal Festival Hall, Daniel Barenboim will complete a series of eight recitals during which he will have performed each of Beethoven’s 32 piano sonatas to packed houses and almost unprecedented critical acclaim. If the reviews are to be believed, and last Saturday’s concert is anything to go by, the event is a triumph.

It’s not the first time Barenboim has performed the entire Beethoven cycle on the South Bank; back in 1967 he was invited to do the same to mark the opening of the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Back then, still only 25, he was already considered one of the finest pianists of his generation; the intervening decades have only added to his reputation as musician and conductor. But he has also become one of the most remarkable people alive today.

Whenever he takes to the stage he is assured of an ecstatic reception. Marcel Berlins was right, recently, to register his dissatisfaction with the modern tendency for audiences to award a standing ovation on the basis of reputation rather than performance. But last Saturday, when Barenboim ended with a thrilling delivery of the Waldstein Sonata, the tribute was surely deserved.

For a non-musician, such an experience begs many questions: how can he hold such a vast amount of information in his memory and deliver it note perfect with such emotional sensitivity? How can he apply such little pressure to a single key yet still produce a sound to fill an auditorium the size of the Royal Festival Hall? How is he able to get inside the mind of a man who lived two centuries ago, and render his music in a way that you just know is how the composer intended it be played?
The answer, of course, is that like Beethoven before him, Barenboim is a genius. In his review of the first two concerts in the cycle, Anthony Holden suggested he “is not merely one of the greatest all-round musicians alive – he is one of the few great men of our time.” This in part explains the scale of the reception he routinely receives. As Berlins noted, we are applauding the man as much as the music, but with good reason. For the manner of Barenboim’s engagement with the Israel-Palestine issue is an example to all successful people of how to use their celebrity to tackle politicians in respect of continuing conflict, suffering and injustice.

As Holden wrote: “This is no mere chart-topper offering idle political endorsements or droning on about climate change. This is a performer who uses his eminence as a musician to give politicians masterclasses in how society can and should work.”

Barenboim clearly understands his political audience as well as he does those that attend his concerts. He is careful but determined; he knows his own mind, but he is fully aware of how easily the interventions of someone outside the political process can inflame and antagonise. That his reputation in Israel survived his decision to perform Wagner in Jerusalem in 2001 is testament to the way he has challenged audiences, through words and music, to understand the causes of, and thus make stuttering progress towards a solution to, this most intractable of problems.
The success of the West-Eastern Divan orchestra, which draws its members from Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, is proof that given the right conditions, and with visionary leadership, estranged peoples can come together to create something positive and inclusive; something that enriches their diverse cultures.

He has repeatedly talked of the need for each side to understand the suffering of the other. When he accepted Palestinian citizenship recently (to add to his citizenship of Argentina, Israel and Spain) he said: “I hope that my new status will be an example of Israeli-Palestinian co-existence, I believe that the destinies of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people are inextricably linked.” History and logic confirm this. There can be no solution until the conditions are created in which both peoples are able to escape the overwhelming sense of injustice and insecurity. Neither side has been well-served by politicians in this regard, as voices of reason and restraint are downed out by those of reactionaries.

Barenboim’s is surely the most reasonable of voices. As he said in a recent piece for the Guardian: “A true citizen of Israel must ask himself what the Jews, known as an intelligent people of learning and culture, have done to share their cultural heritage with the Palestinians. A true citizen of Israel must also ask himself why the Palestinians have been condemned to live in slums and accept lower standards of education and medical care, rather than being provided by the occupying force with decent, dignified and liveable conditions – a right common to all human beings.”

And that surely is the key: the equal rights of all human beings to dignity and a fair chance in life. Of course, it’s not only in Israel and Palestine that these rights are denied to so many people. Ourchosen mode of economic organisation, which favours competition between disparate groups, and discourages cooperation, serves only to intensify perceptions, and the experience, of injustice.

Alongside his recitals, Barenboim has given a series talks on the theme of artist as leader. I think it no coincidence that he is a great artist first and foremost. Art transcends the banal world of politics but can help focus attention on the scale and tragedy of inter-group conflict and the suffering it causes. This is not to suggest that only when we all become great artists will humankind finally have learned the trick of harmonious living. But great art holds out the promise of what could be. The challenge is to create conditions in which all people can achieve for themselves the means to a secure existence so that one day people everywhere will have nothing greater to worry about than making sure they get tickets to the next Barenboim concert, or whatever else it is that makes their lives complete. This need not be a pipe dream. Daniel Barenboim believes it an aim worth striving for, and his audiences over the last few weeks clearly agree.