Daniel Barenboim is a great musician and humanist. So why are so many people afraid of him?
This time Daniel Barenboim was furious because a musician tried to give him flowers. It was July 2018, after a guest performance with his orchestra, the Staatskapelle Berlin, in Buenos Aires. Traditionally, a member of the orchestra presents him with a bouquet during the final bows. “It was a gesture of affection and solidarity,” an employee said. But Barenboim didn’t want the bouquet, and pushed the young violinist aside—on stage, as the audience watched. She walked off, still carrying the flowers, and wept. The orchestra soon discontinued the tradition.
In musical circles, Barenboim’s temper is legendary. He has thrown fits because a violist rolled his eyes, because a singer bowed in the wrong place, because a favored principal player was on vacation. He once berated a musician who lacked concentration because someone in their immediate family had died. He has insulted a doctor who said that a performer with a stomach flu was too sick to play. On at least two occasions, he has allegedly grabbed and shaken members of his staff in anger.
Barenboim is a pianist and conductor, but also a diplomat, an entrepreneur, an advocate for peace and human rights. A child prodigy discovered by Wilhelm Furtwängler, he has served as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and La Scala in Milan, and has made some 500 recordings as a conductor and pianist. He has been awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, the Japanese Praemium Imperiale for music, and the insignia of commander of the French Legion of Honor. In Berlin, where he is music director for life of the Staatsoper and conductor for life of its orchestra, the Staatskapelle, he has overseen the house’s complete renovation and the construction of a brand-new concert hall, the Pierre Boulez Saal, designed by Frank Gehry. He has founded a musical kindergarten and a record label. He communicates with audiences through a YouTube channel, a TV show, and several books. He is a United Nations Peace Ambassador and a personal friend of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. In 1999, he founded the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, catapulting talented young Israeli and Arab musicians to jobs with major orchestras, successful solo careers, and friendships. At the Staatsoper Berlin, his biography takes up four pages in the program. The orchestra’s history is summarized in two.
Barenboim’s life work is awe-inspiring. He has few true peers in classical music. At the Staatsoper, Barenboim is considered irreplaceable, and his lofty status seems to insulate him from the consequences of his behavior. “He’s practically untouchable because no one wants to do without him,” said a former member of his staff. Boundaries get crossed because employees don’t dare contradict the conductor. “I’ve never met someone who can get so furious for no reason, within milliseconds,” a former administrator at the Daniel Barenboim Foundation told VAN. “He’s crossed the line with me hundreds of times, insulted me personally, below the belt stuff.” In a statement, Matthias Schulz, the artistic director of the Staatsoper, said, “At no time have we been made aware of problematic behavior by Daniel Barenboim, who performs at the highest level.” In over a dozen interviews with current and former employees of Barenboim, a picture emerges of a leader who can be inspiring and generous, but also authoritarian, mercurial, and frightening. The interviews also reveal a system in which too much power has been concentrated in a single person’s hands.
In the early 1990s, Richard von Weizsäcker, then the president of Germany, facilitated the negotiations to bring Barenboim to Berlin. It was a fraught and exciting time for the city. Recently restored as the Germany capital, the scars left by the Wall were everywhere. Buildings were abandoned, rents were cheap, and the government was chronically underfunded. An underground arts and party scene was flourishing, but as a traditional cultural capital, Berlin had little to offer in comparison with London, Paris, and New York. In particular, the lack of a world-class opera house grated. The Staatsoper was a 250-year-old company with a rich history that had lost of most of its sheen under the East German government, and politicians started eyeing it as an institution worth restoring to its former glory. Barenboim had recently been fired from the music directorship of the Opéra Bastille in Paris due to contractual disagreements, before his first concert had taken place. In Berlin, Barenboim’s task was to turn the Staatsoper into a major international presence.
“He’s the key, you can sell the orchestra to anybody as long as he’s conducting,”
Despite Berlin’s financial insecurity, politicians seemed ready to give Barenboim everything he wanted to turn the Staatsoper around. When he took over the music directorship, in the 1992-93 season, Barenboim secured a salary increase of 300 percent compared to his predecessor, as well as consulting fees and money for new musicians. With a yearly salary of nearly a million marks, requiring four months a year of attendance in Berlin, he became one of the city’s best paid employees. In a letter dated September 1991, Ulrich Roloff-Momin, at the time a local culture official, promised to defend Barenboim from any “unfair criticism” related to his first season at the Staatsoper.
Barenboim largely delivered. Under his leadership, the Staatskapelle Berlin has become one of the world’s most polished opera orchestras and perhaps one of the top 10 concert ensembles internationally. In 1999, he narrowly lost out to Simon Rattle in the vote to become Claudio Abbado’s successor at the Berlin Philharmonic. Instead he focused all his ambition on the Staatskapelle, pushing it as a top-notch orchestra with residencies at Carnegie Hall and Suntory Hall in Tokyo, tours to Australia and China, and recordings of cycles by Beethoven, Schumann and others. “The house and the orchestra owe him so much. He’s the key. You can sell the orchestra to anybody as long as he’s conducting,” said a former employee in artistic planning. “The knowledge of what could be lost without him makes it impossible to imagine the house changing.”
Barenboim also successfully represents the classical music life of Berlin on the world stage. One politician called him a “beacon” for the city. “He’s the only superstar Berlin has,” the former mayor of Berlin, Klaus Wowereit, reportedly said.
“Barenboim does what he wants. Only then can the artistic director see if there’s room left over for his ideas.”
At the Staatsoper, Barenboim’s opinion is the only one that matters. “When someone does disagree with him, he’s gone,” said a former employee. Although the artistic director is technically above the music director in the Staatsoper hierarchy, four artistic directors have come and gone during Barenboim’s 26-year tenure. “Barenboim does what he wants. Only then can the artistic director see if there’s room left over for his ideas,” said an employee who worked in opera planning. He described waiting in his office until 10 p.m. on weekdays, hoping to speak with the conductor for a few minutes to clear a minor decision with him.
“I always say it’s a climate of fear,” said a current employee at the Staatsoper. Barenboim was raised at a time when being authoritarian was practically in the job description for a conductor. At the beginning of his tenure, the concentration of power in his hands was productive, allowing him to effectively reshape the large institution. Now, Barenboim is always on the minds of his staff, whether he’s actually in the house or not. “You can always feel when he’s here, because everyone is tense all of a sudden,” said a player in the Staatskapelle orchestra academy. When he’s away, the orchestra is less on edge, “as if it needed to take a few deep breaths and relax.” As several sources told VAN independently, Barenboim expects staff to visit his green room and praise him after performances. Those who don’t risk falling out of favor.
In at least one instance, current artistic director Matthias Schulz met with Barenboim and an employee to discuss an instance of physical aggression, and declined to take concrete action, a source claimed. (The source was able to describe the situation in detail.) The human resources department isn’t even located in the Staatsoper building; it is supposed to represent all three of Berlin’s opera houses. “The structural chaos and helplessness behind the scenes—I would never have imagined it,” said an ex-employee. “No one is thinking about what the right structures would be, what people need and who could provide it to them.”
“He gives me the feeling that I’m an idiot. He treats the musicians he values very differently.”
In a 2004 Telegraph profile of Barenboim, Michael Shelden recounted a story about his wife Jacqueline du Pré’s death, in 1987. While suffering from multiple sclerosis, the legendary cellist reportedly “gazed out of her window in London and said, ‘Look at all those people walking around perfectly fit with nothing to give, while I who have so much to give—why can’t I?’ [Barenboim] nods. ‘That’s the great tragedy.’” To the people who work for Barenboim in a non-musical capacity, the idea that the life of a talented person is worth more than someone “mediocre” resonates. “I’m not a professional musician, I don’t play in his orchestra, and that alone is a reason for him to consider me a second-class person,” said a current employee of the Staatsoper. “He gives me the feeling that I’m an idiot. He treats the musicians he values very differently.”
Insofar as Barenboim has a management philosophy, it appears to be: the greater the pressure, the better the results. He is famously obsessive, intimately concerned with the details of every concert. “You can do everything perfectly, and it won’t be perfect enough for him,” said a former employee. One orchestral manager used to intentionally make mistakes in the seating chart so Barenboim would have something to scream about, which could then at least be easily fixed. One 97-degree day in Spain, in advance of a West-Eastern Divan Orchestra concert, the musicians watched as Barenboim ordered stage technicians to change from a large orchestral setup to a chamber music configuration within two minutes. He had them “rehearse” the change several times while he sat and timed them with a stopwatch. His staff make “his every wish possible, no matter how absurd,” said a current employee. A former administrator added, “I only work well when my boss trusts me. But he didn’t give me that. I don’t think he trusts anybody.”
In rehearsal, Barenboim can be uncharacteristically patient, taking an unfamiliar piece very slowly. He can also be galvanizing: of a rehearsal of the warhorse Symphony No. 4 by Tchaikovsky, a musician said, “There was no way for you not to be completely engaged. He cared more and had more energy than most 40-year-old conductors.” A member of the Staatskapelle orchestral academy told VAN, “He illuminated Wagner operas for me. His approach is completely natural, as if they weren’t these gigantic works.”
Barenboim can also be moody and dictatorial in musical work. When he hires a new musician for the Staatskapelle, he singles them out at least once in their first rehearsal to make them play their part alone in front of the entire orchestra. At the Staatskapelle Berlin, “there are musicians he can’t stand, and they end up just not playing under him,” said a current employee. A musician told VAN, “If you don’t get on his good side right away, you’ve missed your chance. The first thing my mentor in my section said was to make sure I was always looking at him during every rehearsal and every concert.” A colleague failed to follow these unwritten rules to Barenboim’s satisfaction. “He lost it and said, ‘She’s not allowed to play when I’m conducting.’”
“His personality and charisma are very effective at the political level.”
Others musicians try to avoid Barenboim’s projects, preferring to work with guest conductors. At the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, he has picked on individual performers so incessantly that they’ve walked off stage in tears during concerts. Before one Divan concert, he yelled to a nervous woodwind player tasked with a difficult solo, “Hey! You will fuck it up!” Two sources independently referred to the pre-concert yelling as a “ritual.” One said, “It obviously helps him.” The other added, “He always offloads his anger onto other people. It’s horrible. He never has himself under control.”
One former Staatsoper employee described Barenboim as “the sun that everything orbits around.” This description also seems apt when applied to the conductor’s unassailable status in Berlin’s political-cultural circles. Nearly every year since he was hired, budget cuts have threatened the Staatsoper; almost as often, Barenboim has floated the idea of leaving Berlin. In 2001, he renegotiated his contract and demanded an additional 10 million marks for soloists and orchestra players’ salaries. When the city, deep in the red, initially declined, he announced that he was leaving. Berlin blinked first. “We got very few concessions for the city,” said a Green Party politician who was privy to the negotiations. (Although Barenboim is paid by the state, the details of his contract are confidential.) At the federal level, the government promised to pay an additional 3.5 million marks to the orchestra annually. That funding helped Barenboim outmaneuver then-culture senator Christian Stölzl, whose plan to fuse two of Berlin’s three full-time opera orchestras the conductor publicly condemned.
A few years later, the Staatsoper building was due for a complete renovation. When the city didn’t have enough money to cover it, Barenboim worked his connections and found 200 million euros in the federal budget for the hall. “We would never have managed without Mr. Barenboim’s intervention at the federal level,” said Mayor Klaus Wowereit in a committee investigating the exploding costs of the renovation.
“He cared more and had more energy than most 40-year-old conductors.”
When Barenboim signaled his interest in opening the Barenboim-Said Academy, the city leased an existing storage building for a symbolic fee of one euro, for a duration of 99 years. The German federal government contributed 21.4 million euros to the building of the Pierre Boulez Saal and the founding of the Barenboim-Said Academy, and it covers 7 million euros annually in operating costs. “His personality and charisma are very effective at the political level,” said a Berlin politician who handles cultural issues. “He never needed to get involved with local politics. He represents his interests at the federal level, where the money is, which is legitimate and bears fruit for him.” One staff member at the Pierre Boulez Saal said, “Barenboim is a better politician than musician.”
In Berlin, Barenboim is now considered sacred. At the beginning of his tenure, certain politicians and members of the press were critical of the concessions made to the conductor. That criticism has nearly died out. Although the Staatsoper has not developed an artistic profile and community comparable to Barrie Kosky’s progressive Komische Oper, it has avoided scrutiny. A member of the city’s culture committee described Barenboim to VAN as a “cultural ambassador,” adding, “Money invested in the Staatsoper is money well spent.” Two retired politicians contacted by VAN said they were aware of Barenboim’s occasional aggressive behavior in rehearsals, but downplayed it as a normal part of the artistic process. One added that it was the job of the artistic director, not politicians, to handle problems that arise during rehearsal and performance.
However, multiple sources told VAN that their relationship with Barenboim was the decisive factor in whether their contracts were renewed. In practice, he controls the Staatsoper artistically, politically, and administratively. “What politician has a serious stake in looking behind the curtain and changing things?” asked a former member of the opera planning team. Barenboim’s behavior, taken alone, may not be unusual. But there is no support system or structure for the people who suffer under it, and no way of protecting Barenboim himself from the corrupting influence of power. A former staff member at the Staatsoper said, “There’s no system that tells people here what they can and can’t do. That’s not Barenboim’s fault, even if it’s useful for him.”
Barenboim is a musician in the 20th-century mold. He possesses a formidable ear, and first-rate instrumentalists and singers are among the few people to whom he is reliably respectful. Performers, in turn, clamor to work with him; in the early years at the Staatsoper, great artists accepted lower fees compared to other houses to perform under his direction. But almost no one lives up to the standards he sets for them, and for himself, with the exception of other musical giants. “Pierre Boulez was a huge figure for him. Barenboim had such respect for him, and, astonishingly, something almost like love,” a former administrator told VAN. Besides similar titans like Zubin Mehta, “There are few people out there whom he respects and whose opinions he values.”
Barenboim has in common with the late Pierre Boulez a nearly compulsive drive to make music, to keep going, no matter what the personal cost. At one point in his final years, Pierre Boulez was flying from Paris to Milan for a concert at La Scala. In a hurry at Charles de Gaulle airport, he slipped and fell while going up an escalator. A doctor was called, but Boulez insisted on taking his flight. The following morning Boulez allowed himself to be examined. He had broken his back and his shoulder. Barenboim has finished conducting concerts when near collapse, with a doctor on site and the number for an ambulance already typed into a staff member’s cellphone. “He tortures himself,” said a former staff member. On January 27, 2019, Barenboim conducted Richard Strauss’s “Elektra” at the Staatsoper, although he was scheduled for an eye operation and could barely see the score. He made frequent conducting mistakes, adding extra beats and giving wrong entrances. At one point a large section of the orchestra simply stopped playing. But the idea that he would take the evening off was unthinkable. “He’s never indifferent on the podium, no matter how sick he is,” said a former employee. “The concentration and energy he expects from others, he expects from himself, too.”
Barenboim has a reputation for spreading himself too thin. The people around him notice when his work doesn’t live up to his own high standards. “I can’t figure out why he still gets up there and plays a Bartók Piano Concerto. He’s not sensitive to it, and he’s not doing himself a favor by playing it,” one said. “Is it possible that such a frighteningly intelligent person has a blind spot?”
Why does Barenboim need to work so much and so hard? It’s a question that many of his employees ask themselves, as they watch him take on more concerts than he can handle. Maybe it’s force of habit. Or the need of a great talent to constantly prove something to himself. “It’s a certain type of person, isn’t it?” suggested a former employee. “You see it relatively often among exceptional artists. You can’t stop them. Anyway, it’s crazy what he does, he needs to be completely booked at all times.” Another staff member recalled that employees were worried when Barenboim finally would take a vacation, because that meant he would come back with new ideas for them to turn into reality. He occasionally takes business-related phone calls during the intermissions of his recitals.
“The concentration and energy he expects from others, he expects from himself, too.”
Barenboim can be extraordinarily generous with his time, energy, and musicianship. He is fond of grand gestures: expensive gifts, fancy cigars, free champagne, dinner for the entire orchestra. He can be shockingly smart and sophisticated. “Even today, he’s one of the most fascinating people I’ve come across,” said a former Staatsoper administrator. “By a long shot, he’s one of the most intelligent, talented, musical people—he’s pretty incomparable. Consider the breadth of his talents. There are fantastic pianists and intelligent conductors, but he’s so good at so many different things.”
For many of the people who work for him or have worked for him, however, his many good qualities are little consolation. “On the one hand, I really judge him for the way he behaves,” said one employee. “On the other, I can understand why he is that way. I almost feel sorry for him. Which doesn’t make it acceptable.” For many, it was impossible to work for Barenboim while remaining true to their values. An administrator who stopped working for Barenboim years ago said that he still thinks about moments where he wished he had said no. He fantasizes about retorts he should have made, stands he should have taken: “It’s a dark chapter of my life.” He added, “If 10 or 20 people got together, they could really send him a message: certain boundaries should be respected. But they are too afraid.”
Barenboim is now 76. Among those in leadership positions at the Staatsoper and in political circles, little thought has been given to who might replace him. Employees have considered this. For some, a future without Barenboim holds promise. For others, that future is impossible to imagine. “Even today, no matter how angry people get at him or how afraid they are of him, most would say they hope he lives to 120,” one former employee told VAN. “He’s in the DNA of the house. He is both the solution and the problem.” ¶