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Keeping up with Michael Barenboim

By Sigurd Neubauer

04/10/2023

He’s the scion of a classical music dynasty: But for Michael Barenboim, it wasn’t clear until he enrolled at the University of Sorbonne to study philosophy that he realized that pursuing a career in classical music – just as his parents and grandparents had done before him – is what he actually wanted to do. 

The decision was his to make as he had studied the violin ever since childhood. 

Now, Barenboim, 38, is balancing off a hectic career between performing as a soloist with the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble, which he launched in January 2020 only months before the global Covid-19 pandemic would upend life as we know it, to co-managing the storied Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin, which his father, Daniel Barenboim, had established in 1999 together with his friend, the eminent Palestinian public intellectual Professor Edward Said of Columbia University (1935-2003). 

Barenboim senior also established the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 with the vision of bringing Israeli and Palestinian musicians together. “Today, our orchestra is not limited to musicians from Israel and Palestine, but has members from all neighboring countries, including from Turkey, Iran and North Africa,” the younger Barenboim explains.

The renowned Barenboim-Said Academy in Berlin

We conduct our interview as Barenboim just wrapped up a four-week concert tour in California with the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble where it performed Maurice Ravel’s (1875-1937)

Sonata for Violin and Cello, Antonín Dvořák’s (1841-1904) Terzetto in C Major, Op. 74, Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) Trauermusik, and George Enescu’s (1881-1955) Octet in C Major, Op. 7.

“I love performing with my colleagues of the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble,” Barenboim says, but admits that it was a particularly hectic time as he also had to carry out his duties as the dean of the family namesake academy in Berlin in-between concerts.

The West-Eastern Divan Ensemble provides us with the opportunity to introduce the ideals of the orchestra but in a more intimate chamber music setting
Barenboim established the West-Eastern Divan Ensemble in January 2020

The California tour was long in the making but delayed because of the pandemic of 2020 as the Ensemble was touring Europe at the time when all programming was canceled in early March. “Next season, we’ll be touring some more in Europe and perhaps in Asia the following year,” Barenboim says.

“The Ensemble that I created is a mini version of the orchestra,” Barenboim explains, adding that “it provides us with the opportunity to introduce the ideals of the orchestra but in a more intimate chamber music setting.”

He’s referring to the orchestra that his father had established with Said, which had initially been set up as a workshop for young people from Israel and Palestine. “It quickly grew into an orchestra because there were so many people who applied,” Barenboim says. 

“Every year since its inception, it grew in quality and quantity as the orchestra began touring,” he recalls, pointing out that in 2005 it enjoyed a landmark performance in Ramallah. “It became an important event, but from that point onwards, the orchestra began touring in Europe where it became a mainstay at the great festivals, including at the Lucerne Festival.”

“Today, it is a first-class orchestra,” he adds.

While the Orchestra is comprised of musicians from across the broader Middle East and North Africa region, it does not perform Arabic music but mostly from the classical canon, including that of Arnold Schönberg (1875-1951).

For Barenboim the musician, he enjoys a mixture of performing as a soloist within the Ensemble as well as a member of the orchestra. “If I cannot do it simultaneously, then consecutively,” he explains as he believes that they are enriched by the other.

Responding to how he balances his musical, administrative, and teaching careers with family life, he says it’s “a tough one as it essentially requires having two or three jobs at the same time,” then quips: “At the moment, it is still working.”

Barenboim also cherishes his ability to work with his father, who recently recovered from illness and is now teaching once a week at the Academy. “It is such a pleasure having him there,” Barenboim says, pointing out that his father is the president of the Academy but that he’s stepped away from his administrative responsibilities.

The Academy’s day-to-today operation is managed by a leadership trio comprised of Rector Dr. Regula RappChancellor Dr. Carsten Siebert, and Barenboim. The Academy is primarily funded by the German government.

Now that the elder Barenboim has resumed teaching at the Academy, the Maestro who is widely considered to be one of the greatest of his generation, delivers master classes for select students while the rest come and listen, which is “very nice,” the son explains.

The younger Barenboim has even brought his two children once or twice to experience their grandfather, “but it is not so easy as they have school and other activities.”

The late Professor Edward Said, left, and Maestro Daniel Barenboim 
All in the family 

Barenboim’s mother, Elena Bashkirova, is also a celebrated artist in her own right. Bashkirova, like her husband, is a concert pianist who performs a broad and diverse repertoire from chamber music to piano concerti, including by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756 -1791) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856), among others.

She’s also the head of the Jerusalem International Festival of Chamber Music, which she established in 1998. During the rest of the year, Bashkirova tours Europe performing mostly chamber music. 

On both sides of his family, Barenboim is preceded by generations of virtuoso pianists, but his grandmother on his mother’s side stood out: she was a violinist who also became his first teacher.

“She helped with the practice and preparing for each lesson, which was really great,” Barenboim recalls from a childhood filled with music. 

Soloist Martha Argerich and Michael Barenboim as concert master perform with the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra under the baton of Maestro Barenboim, 2019

Barenboim’s brother, David, is also involved within the music industry, but focuses on promoting hip-hop

Responding to whether he ever faced any pressure from his family to become a musician, he responds diplomatically, saying: “I don’t know if there were any expectations from the beginning for me to become a musician as it came about with the progress that I made over time.”

As a father of two children, his son, eight years-old, plays the cello while his daughter, six, plays the violin. 

Recalling his own childhood, Barenboim reveals that once he had achieved a certain level, he would perform in front of his father at home.  

Recalling his transition to becoming a violinist, Barenboim explains that there “comes a moment when one just has to put in all the hours required to practice. I did it at the absolute latest moment possible,” he says with a chuckle. “I was almost 20; it was either then or never.”

Barenboim is referring to when he dropped his philosophy studies at the Sorbonne to enroll full-time at his father’s academy in Berlin. 

On what motivated him to pursue this path was Barenboim’s distinct feeling of being an artist, “which left me with little choice but to pursue this path,” he recalls, adding that the decision to do so “had to be mine alone.”

His wife, Natalia Milstein, fits well into the Barenboim dynasty as she’s a pianist herself. “We met at the Academy when I studied there.” Like his mother, Milstein is Russian and speaks it strictly to their two children while Barenboim speaks to them in French. “I was born in France and educated within the French system. Our children attend a French school as well,” he explains. 

For a busy man on the run, during his “downtime” Barenboim enjoys playing snooker, but quips: “I am not very good at it as it requires lots of practice and time, which I don’t have,” he says with a laugh.

All images are credited to the Barenboim-Said Academy.  

On both sides of his family, Barenboim is preceded by generations of virtuoso pianists, but his grandmother on his mother’s side stood out: she was a violinist who also became his first teacher
Maestro Barenboim and the students rehearse at the Pierre Boulez auditorium, 2017. Photo credit: Peter Adamik
The Academy’s day-to-today operation is managed by a leadership trio comprised of Rector Dr. Regula Rapp,  Chancellor Dr. Carsten Siebert, and Michael Barenboim
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