Barenboim and Don Quixote Mine History in Hollywood

United StatesUnited States R. Strauss, Tchaikovsky: Kian Soltani (cello), Miriam Manasherov (viola), West-Eastern Divan Orchestra / Daniel Barenboim. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, 11.11.2018. (LV)

Daniel Barenboim © Pablo Castagnola
Daniel Barenboim © Pablo Castagnola

R. Strauss – Don Quixote Op.35
Tchaikovsky – Symphony No.5 in E minor Op.64

When Daniel Barenboim brought his West-Eastern Divan Orchestra to Disney Hall on a Sunday night, with fires burning all over California, it gave Los Angeles an excuse to celebrate and mourn something other than political victories and defeats.

The audience bathed Divan (as the players call themselves) with sustained applause. Even though Barenboim has been a remote presence in Los Angeles for many years, he set the tone for a special relationship, before they played a note, as if everyone in the room were old friends. A glamorous young crowd, even in the ringside seats, had the hall buzzing with innocent anticipation, as if the students were rushing Covent Garden Opera House at the beginning of The Red Shoes.

Many of the public may have come ready to fall in love with the Divan’s loftier goals of peace and unity through classical music — ideals that have been bringing together Israeli and Arab musicians since 1999. But I don’t think they were prepared for the charisma of each of the musicians in the flesh, or the exhilaration of their cumulative impact.

One thing for sure: the players were world-class and full-blooded. The richly-toned woodwinds handled numerous solos with miraculous fluency and flirtatious character. The brass were always eager to be enthusiastic, loud, and accurate, and the strings added a ravishing (if lean) top end and a magnificent deep bass. The timpanist inexorably marked time as if he were the coxswain for the the galley seduction scene in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra.

There was another Tinseltown touch: the Los Angeles Times’s new Beirut bureau chief was one of the first violins (a perfect cover for an Indiana Jones-type freelance musician).

Whatever the work they’d done with Barenboim at rehearsal, and during the tour, and over the years, Divan’s relationship to their music director was relaxed. One of the cellists shared grins and glances with one of the first violins throughout, and was so in synch with her colleagues that watching her enhanced, rather than distracted. Towards the end of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony, the concertmaster twice turned in his seat to see what was going on behind his back.

Barenboim also seemed unworried, as if it were just grand to be standing there before such a group of wonderful, admittedly much younger colleagues. They didn’t really need much direction except an occasional swoop here, an upbeat there, and separate cues for a clarinet chirping. His focus seemed to be on listening to his charges with pride, while falling in love himself with the way they were playing. While their performance of the Fifth was just the way you’d think an adoring grandfather and his kids would play — loud and passionate, charming and tender — the results in Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote were quite interesting.

The solo violist, Miriam Manasherov, had such a large, infectiously rustic tone and nimble technique that she received more applause at the end than the sweet-toned, lyrically inclined Kian Soltani. The difference in sound and personalities — opposite of what you normally get with physically commanding cellists — was visually emphasized because Soltani, who sat in front of the orchestra, also played during the tuttis instead of only assuming the voice of Don Quixote.

I spoke to Soltani earlier this year about playing Don Quixote with Barenboim. ‘Barenboim wants you to be absolutely prepared. He has very specific wishes and he always wants you to give 100 percent; he never wants you to relax for a moment, even though your part may seem unimportant. He thinks that every note has a meaning.’ And it was like that Sunday night, involved and exhilarating.

The program of Strauss and Tchaikovsky made a six-degrees-of separation sequence, highlighting one of L.A.’s most important musical roots: Gregor Piatigorsky, the most physically commanding Don Quixote of all. The cellist’s presence as a great teacher at the University of Southern California is reflected in two international festivals devoted to his fame. In 1929 he played Don Quixote here with the Los Angeles Philharmonic on his first United States tour. And Piatigorsky’s greatest musical partner was Wilhelm Furtwängler who was one of Barenboim’s formative musical influences.

As if acknowledging this history, Barenboim gave an encore, the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, a concert finale often favored by Furtwängler.

Laurence Vittes

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