In the 12 years since Daniel Barenboim stepped down as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, many milestones have rolled by: the ensemble’s 125th anniversary, the rise of the digital era and the primacy of YouTube (more on that later) — and the Cubs’ long-awaited victory in the 2016 World Series.

What has never changed, however, is the deep affection and admiration that Barenboim feels for the CSO, where his tenure as the orchestra’s ninth music director ran from 1991 to 2006. Those emotions were immediately evident during a press conference Oct. 29 at Symphony Center, ahead of the maestro’s first CSO appearances since his departure in 2006.

“I’m delighted to be here, as I’m sure you can imagine,” Barenboim said at the event, hosted by Jeff Alexander, president of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra Association, and Cristina Rocca, vice president for artistic planning. “I conducted the orchestra [over] 36 years, from 1970 to 2006. The association was and is very deep. I knew at least three generations of the CSO,” said the maestro, who appointed 40 musicians to the orchestra’s roster during his tenure. “Now it’s probably even more than that.”

Barenboim, who made his Orchestra Hall debut as a 15-year-old piano recitalist in 1958 and first conducted the CSO in 1970, insisted that he learned as much from the orchestra over the years as it did from him. “In 1970, I was many things, but not an experienced conductor,” he said. “To stand before the CSO was an event of shattering importance. [That experience] is something that accompanied me when I became music director in 1991.”

So primary was the CSO experience that Barenboim made a crucial decision in 1975 after becoming music director of the Orchestre de Paris. He decided to limit his guest-conducting assignments to “orchestras from which I could still learn. So that meant just Chicago, Berlin and Vienna.” Later, he emphasized, “In all those years with the CSO, I learned so many things … about musical thought and about what role of the musician and role of the conductor [should be].” For Barenboim, it all began in Chicago.

He also singled out the CSO for its unmatched work ethic, recalling an incident with legendary first trumpet Adolph “Bud” Herseth during a rehearsal of Richard Strauss’ Elektra, an opera rarely performed by the CSO. “Chicago of course is very special because it had the most extraordinary musical ethic,” Barenboim said. “[Herseth] didn’t know the piece well. During the rehearsal, he came in a bar too soon. I didn’t say anything. But afterward, he came to me and said, ‘I believe I should be able to play everything absolutely correctly as written.’ And I thought, this is the most perfect definition [of professional ethic] I’ve ever heard in my life. … Many remembrances like this come to the fore. For those reasons, I am thrilled to be back.”

During his weeklong residency, Barenboim will conduct the CSO in three performances Nov. 1-3 of Smetana’s Má vlast, and his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in Strauss’ Don Quixote and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 on Nov. 5. Má vlast might seem like an unusual choice but it too has a special significance for Barenboim, who grew up listening to the CSO’s seminal recording of the work under Czech-born Rafael Kubelík, music director from 1950 to 1953. “It’s a recording I loved and I still do.” In addition, Barenboim was determined to program a work that he had never conducted in Chicago. “After 36 years, finding such a work was very difficult,” he said of Má vlast, which he led for the first time just a few years ago. “It is unashamedly a work of patriotism. I found it very interesting to look into the score that way. … Since childhood, when I had this recording of Kubelík, I have felt very close to it.”

Má vlast also figured into a humorous incident at the Prague Festival, where Barenboim conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in the piece. “We were playing the day before in Munich,” he recalled. “Someone mentioned, ‘You realize we have to play the Czech national anthem tomorrow.’ I didn’t know it, and I couldn’t find the music. Thank god there was YouTube already. Sure enough, there on YouTube was a video of Kubelík conducting the national anthem in 1990, when the country was still Czechoslovakia.”

Once in Prague, librarians located the sheet music and the musicians set to work rehearsing it. They played the first portion with no problem but then came silence. The second part of anthem, associated with Slovakia, had been removed after the 1993 division of Czechoslovakia into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. “It was a very funny moment,” recalled Barenboim, still chuckling at the memory.

As the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which Barenboim founded with Edward Said in 1999 to promote understanding between Arabs and Israelis, approaches its 20th anniversary, the maestro remains proud of its accomplishments. He estimates that almost 1,000 young musicians have gone through its ranks during the ensemble’s existence. “I don’t think anyone thinks about the other [the same way ] before they came to the orchestra,” he said. “Six hours of rehearsal with your arch-enemy … after three days of course you think differently. The power of the music is so strong, it makes every musician [realize] that they share the same passion with the other. The orchestra never had a political line. I always say we all agree on how to play to Beethoven but we don’t have to agree on politics. But it is essential that you learn to respect the other’s narrative, even when you don’t believe in it. We must awaken curiosity about the other.”

TOP: Daniel Barenboim discusses his return to Symphony Center during a press conference Oct. 29. | ©Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

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