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March 5, 2004

Barenboim earns stardom after powerhouse performance

When Chicago's classical music superstar, Daniel Barenboim, walked onstage on Friday night, I was skeptical of the audience's preemptive standing ovation. I was no less skeptical of the easy confidence with which he accepted it. Aware of the position he occupied in this audience's heart, he bowed to the full house. But then, in a gem of a performance of Beethoven's Second piano concerto, Maestro Barenboim proved himself fully worthy of the premature accolade he had just received.

Barenboim conducted from the piano, from memory. This mainly consisted of him looking intensely at Mathieu Dufour, the principal flutist, nearly lunging off the piano bench towards the viola section, and raising his hands in a "touchdown!" gesture at exciting orchestral cadences. But forget the conducting; the orchestra was tight, energetic, and right on the money. Let's talk about his playing.

This early Beethoven concerto required a Mozartean touch, and Barenboim's playing was crystalline. The myriad scalar passages were clean and delicate; Barenboim's concerto had elements of Murray Perahia's Mozart, with strong, even, and seemingly effortless trills. In the second movement, a prime candidate for dragging and molasses-like piano playing, Barenboim kept the tempo moving. He also demonstrated remarkable pianissimo technique, letting individual orchestral parts emerge but managing to keep the solo part rich and vibrant. (The damper-pedal blurring in the slow movement varied the texture especially effectively). The third movement, the Rondo, was delightful. To come alive, classical music needs energy, precision, and drama. Both Barenboim and the orchestra had plenty of drama. That energy was transferred to the audience, who called for several encores so Barenboim and his fellow musicians could bask in their glory.

Out come the stagehand mafia to move the piano and crowd the stage with more chairs, and it was on to the Schoenberg Variations for Orchestra. The title of this concert series is "Parallels and Paradoxes," and the CSO suggests both a musical and intellectual connection between Ludwig and Arnold; perhaps this youthful Beethoven was an unknowing precursor of modernism. Was Schoenberg reflecting on Beethoven's later work, which would end the concert? Was this juxtaposition, a Schoenberg bookended by two very different Beethovens, the CSO's redefinition of temporally-based notions of modernity—or, since Schoenberg's theme does not appear right at the front of the piece, of the entire theme and variation genre? Who knows?

Whatever the case, the performance—like the opening concerto—was wound tight as a clock. Barenboim used his score to conduct a focused ensemble, complete with six basses, a full brass section, two harps, and a celeste. I am sure that very few audience members knew the Variations for Orchestra like the back of their hand, as I did. Most of them probably didn't know it well at all. But as Barenboim drew individual variations' effects out of the overarching experience of the piece—a dry, precise snare drum; eerie whirred tonguing from the winds—that unfamiliarity was rendered irrelevant by the music itself. It washed over the audience before we knew what had hit us, from ppp to ff and everything in between. At the end, there was silence in the hall until someone called out "Brave!" I didn't quite see Schoenberg as the perfect liaison between the two halves of the concert, but, nevertheless, I agreed with the enthusiast a few rows down.

Beethoven's Fourth piano concerto is a marathon of a piece. It's long enough to fill the second half of a concert, even long enough to be a concert in itself. So it was already impressive for Barenboim to return, after two such substantial pieces, to play and conduct another concerto from memory. Again, the orchestra sounded centered and mature, and Barenboim's technique was superb. As a result, the musical atmosphere shimmered, changing constantly.

The concerto's chordal opening was appropriately hymn-like; later, parallel scales and double trills flew by. Throughout the first movement, Barenboim's arpeggios were light and delicate. His playing was nuanced enough to bring out the unusual harmonies in the piece: an unexpected turn to A minor from G major, or a salient minor 7th chord. Pianists sometimes lament their inability to alter the tone of a note once they play it (whereas string players, because of the nature of bowing, can control both volume and tone quality). But as he leaned on his final notes in the second movement, Barenboim made the postpartem crescendo seem possible.

It's true that the audience's attention span was fading toward the end. Both soloist and orchestra could have taken a few more risks with the Fourth Concerto to separate it completely from the Second. But even if the listeners were flagging, the players were not. After the audience called him back three times, and after he had given each section an individual bow, Barenboim did play a solo encore—a small, meditative Schumann piece, the polar opposite of anything prior to it. But the encore was deliciously self-contained. Instead of becoming its own mini-program—as famous artists' multiple encores tend to— this single piece only reminded us of the intensity, and the integrity, of the concert we had just heard. Parallel? Paradox? Powerhouse.