Barenboim conducts talk with Randel

By Daniel Gilbert

University President Don Michael Randel hosted Daniel Barenboim, music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO), at the International House on Sunday, as the two addressed contemporary critiques of classical music, and the latter spoke on his vision for music in society.

Barenboim, renowned as one of the world’s finest conductors, has led the CSO since 1991. He made his last visit to the University of Chicago for Edward Said’s memorial concert last October. Barenboim began the discussion by reflecting on the music of Arnold Schoenberg, a composer widely known for his work in 12 tones, which many deem inaccessible. Barenboim addressed this critique, stating that accessibility has nothing to do with the quality of musical composition. “Music can be very accessible, and in spite of that, be of very high quality,” he said. “Alternatively, music can be inaccessible and not be of very high quality. The accessibility of the music is irrelevant to its quality.”

Barenboim noted that one of the great challenges involved with performing the music of Schoenberg is that it is extremely difficult for a musician to rise to the level of “freedom of expression.” Schoenberg himself is known to have acknowledged the technical difficulty of his works, which he considered an obstacle to understanding his music.

President Randel turned the discussion to the Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, probing Barenboim to discuss what he found most interesting about Bartok’s compositions. Barenboim responded by discussing his three favorite elements of Bartok’s work: the folkloric character, the complexity and juxtaposition of different rhythms, and, what Barenboim finds most fascinating, the development of a “poetics of percussion.” The latter element was particularly notable in Bartok’s use of the triangle as a means of musical expression, as opposed to its customary use as a percussive instrument.

Barenboim also spoke about Austrian composer Joseph Haydn, whom he described as “less blue-blooded and more down-to-earth than Mozart.” According to Barenboim, the “plebeian” Haydn is often misunderstood. Many find the “stop-and-go” nature of his compositions to be humorous, an interpretation which Barenboim views as an under-appreciation of the scope of Haydn’s artistry. Barenboim spoke of Haydn as a master of punctuating monotony with stops, which instead of serving as a musical transition, has a great capacity for observation. “What people perceive as humor, is really the sense of the unexpected,” he said.

The discussion gradually shifted from musical analysis to a critique of the role of music in modern society. Barenboim lamented the fact that music is often used to forget reality and humanity. “[It’s] a tragedy,” he said, “because through music we can learn so many things.”

Amid the occasional applause, Barenboim offered his vision of how music can address political crises the world over. “If our politicians were able to read music, if they were able to understand harmonic progressions […] then I believe they would understand many things about their job,” he said. “Music always plays a more important role in times of strife, because music deals with the tragedy of the human condition. In music, you find solace, and more: the ability to express your suffering.”

Barenboim, who lived in Israel for much of his life, spoke of an initiative he has begun to open a “musical kindergarten” in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. He described the school as like any other, except that the main activities will focus on music. Barenboim seeks to expose children to music, “in the hope that it will become a necessity for them, and radically change the place of music in society.” Barenboim believes that in the present age music has lost much of the social importance it once held.

Donald and Barbara Olson, who made the trip from Palatine, Illinois, were impressed with what Barenboim had to say. “I was amazed by how forthright and passionate he was about music and world events,” Donald said. Barbara, recalling Barenboim’s initiative in Ramallah, added that Barenboim was a man “who acts upon his ideas.” Both found the speech particularly compelling, as public schools in Palatine are facing financial difficulties and considering cutting funding to music programs.

Eric Arunas, from WFMT 98.7, recorded the discussion, though he could not guarantee that it would be broadcasted. Arunas considered the thrust of Barenboim’s talk to be an attempt to bring back musical education in primary schools, and commended him personally for his initiative in Ramallah.

A few younger people were also present at the event. James Stinehart, age 10, said he thought the talk was “interesting,” particularly with respect to Barenboim’s discussion of the spread of classical music to China. Stinehart and his younger brother, Eric, age six, are both aspiring piano players, whose favorite composers include Chopin, Rachmaninoff, and Mozart.