Monday, February 04, 2013

Daniel Barenboim @ Edward Said Memorial Concert, Columbia University

Daniel Barenboim and Ara Guzelimian
One of the highlights of living in Chicago was the presence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, one of the best philharmonic orchestras in the country, and up through 2010, one of the world's great pianists and conductors, Daniel Barenboim, helmed it. I did not see Barenboim conduct as much as I could have or would have liked, but I can remember several memorable concerts he led or in which he performed, and so when two friends suggested I join them to see him speak about his friendship with the late scholar, critic, and musician Edward Said, and then conduct a short chamber concert at which he would also perform, I wasn't going to pass on the opportunity.

The Institute for Comparative Literature and Society (ICLS) at Columbia University and The Cogut Center for the Humanities (CCH) at Brown University sponsored the talk, "Remembering Edward W. Said: A Conversation with Daniel Barenboim and Ara Guzelimian," as well as the subsequent performance by selected members of the Seville-based West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Both took place at Columbia's Miller Theater. I hadn't realized it, but this was but the first event in larger program, running throughout 2013 at Columbia, that will commemorate Edward W. Said on the 10th anniversary of his passing. I looked online and cannot find the other events, but I expect they will be posted at some point down the road.
Daniel Barenboim
Guzelimian is the Dean and Provost of the Juilliard School, and he knew how to elicit lively, warm, but quite candid remarks from Barenboim about his relationship with Said and his wife, who was in the audience, and about the founding of the Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which involved a fascinating story in which a young Barenboim aided two young Syrian musicians in entering a concert by Arthur Rubinstein (whose daughter also was in the audience, just two seats away from us), only to have students of one of those young musicians many years later present themselves to his assistant as candidates for the orchestra, which brings together young musicians from Israel and the Jewish Diaspora, and the Arab world. As busy as both men were, Barenboim noted that until the end of Said's life, they spoke every day. He went on to register a number of resonant points about culture, music, what Said meant and still means to him, and what sort of work in the world he saw the orchestra undertaking.

Its skill was on display in particular in three of the pieces it performed that night: Pierre Boulez's Mémoriale and Messagesquisse, the latter a favorite of mine and so expertly rendered I wish I had been able to record it (verboten, naturally) and post it here. The soloist, Hassan Mataz El Molla, was particularly adroit in leading and playing his violoncello off against the sextet of violoncellos producing the sonorous buzzing background Boulez devises. Between the two Boulez pieces came an original composition by K. Azmeh, who performed the clarinet solo entitled Prayer, a tribute to Edward Said. Though it possessed some pretty moments, it felt a bit underdeveloped and overshadowed by the virtuosic Boulez pieces. I also couldn't help but think of Douglas Ewart's more successful and dazzling compositions, expertly performed on a range of woodwinds, that I used to catch at Chicago's Velvet Lounge.

Last on the bill Franz Schubert's Piano Quintet in A major D.667, "The Trout." Both Barenboim and his son Michael performed in the latter piece, and I must say that while at the end of the piece I felt as I had heard an animated sewing machine, as I often do when I listen to Schubert's music, I also thought he accompanists in particular were sharp, summing with panache piece's playfulness as well as its darker notes. Barenboim's rhythm seemed a little off at first, but by the middle of the piece he was in sync, and brought the quintet to a powerful close.

L-R: Daniel Barenboim, Yosef Abraham,  Nassib
Ahmadieh, Julia Deneyka, and Michael Barenboim

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