Beethoven had his string quartets. Shubert, his songs and chamber music. For Mozart, it was piano concertos and operas. Each composer finds a musical medium or two that "represent a kind of personal diary," says conductor Daniel Barenboim. It is those piano concertos and operas that inspire an all-Mozart program by music director Barenboim and the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra as they tour the eastern United States Feb. 3-12 in honor of the composer's 250th birthday.
Since the Staatskapelle, founded in 1570, also doubles as Germany's state opera orchestra, its players have absorbed some special insights into Mozart, Barenboim says. They know his music "intimately," in part because opera exposes new levels of meaning by blending music and words. That helps make the orchestra's performances of Mozart's symphonies and concertos deeper and richer, he says.
Previous conductors of the Staatskapelle include composers Felix Mendelssohn and Richard Strauss, as well as 20th-century giants of the podium such as Georg Szell, Herbert von Karajan, and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Trapped behind the Iron Curtain in East Berlin until 1989, it has only toured the US in recent years. Reviewers have found its sound "mellow and mature" and "gorgeous, deep, and generous."
In some ways, it had been kept in a kind of suspended animation, cut off from new techniques, instruments, and approaches that have changed Western orchestras. When Barenboim took the baton in 1992, he had a feeling it was "like the most beautiful and high-quality antique furniture that needed getting rid of the dust," he says. "It needed brushing up. And I think we've done that."
In 2003, Barenboim and the orchestra won a Grammy for their recording of Richard Wagner's "Tannhäuser."
One of the Staatskapelle's distinctions is its less aggressive string section, which doesn't play so far "off the strings" and attack entrances.
"It is very important how you start the sound out of the silence," says Barenboim in a phone interview from Madrid. "This orchestra has the characteristic that the sound is never harsh at the beginning. They very much understand that the sound comes out of the silence, and therefore it is already an interruption of the silence that precedes it."
Barenboim, whose parents were Russian Jews who emigrated to Argentina, moved with his family to Israel in 1952. That year, at age 10, he made his professional debut as a pianist. Half a century later, he enjoys practicing much more than when he was young and still finds fresh insights. "Music never repeats itself," he says.
On the February tour, he will perform a Mozart piano concerto at each stop, sandwiched between two symphonies. Leaving the podium empty while he moves to the keyboard has advantages, he says - "no middleman" stands between the close collaboration between pianist and orchestra.
Barenboim has never shied from using music to break down social barriers. In 2002 he created a furor in Israel by leading the Staatskapelle in a piece by Wagner at a music festival in Jerusalem. Public performances of works by the composer, whose music was promoted by Nazi Germany, were banned in Israel. "In a democratic society like Israel there should be no room for taboos," he wrote later in Britain's Guardian newspaper. "We need to have a sense of history, but we also need to know who we are today as Israeli Jews."
Beginning in 1999, Barenboim teamed with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said to establish a youth orchestra composed of Israeli and Arab players ages 14 to 30 years old. In August, this Western-Eastern Divan Orchestra played a concert in the city of Ramallah, in the Palestinian territories. A recent DVD, "The Ramallah Concert," includes the performance and a documentary on the orchestra project.
This year Barenboim will leave the post that most Americans identify with him - music director of the Chicago Symphony. He succeeded Sir Georg Solti there in 1991. "It has been a very, very important and close collaboration for me," he says.
That change has brought speculation that Barenboim would take over La Scala. The opera house in Milan has been without a musical director since last spring, when longtime conductor Riccardo Muti walked out. Barenboim is scheduled to guest conduct "Tristan und Isolde" at La Scala next year. "This is the extent of my commitment there," he says. But he also won't unequivocally deny he's interested.
"We will see what else I will do," he says.
Feb. 3-4 Festival Hall San Jan, Puerto Rico
Feb. 6 Jackie Gleason Theater Miami Beach, Fla.
Feb. 7 Naples Concert Hall Naples, Fla.
Feb. 8 Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center Philadelphia
Feb. 10 Symphony Hall Boston
Feb. 11-12 Carnegie Hall New York