If it's Monday, this must be Beethoven. Tuesday? Wagner, kinda.
Daniel Barenboim is in town for his usual crazy schedule of commitments -- Tristan Und Isolde (a rerun of the Chereau production from last season, with the same cast -- Meier and Storey), various concerts as conductor/pianist, speeches, TV talk show appearances to promote his books, etc.
The problem with globetrotting pianists/conductors/authors/activists, quite obviously, is that private flights are very fast and make traveling very easy; but portable concert Steinways haven't really been invented yet (it's easier to carry a score in one's attaché case than it is to drag around a big piano). And eventually, that's going to come back to haunt you.
Last night (Monday), Daniel Barenboim conducted the Filarmonica della Scala orchestra in Schoenberg's Verklaerte Nacht and lead the orchestra from the keyboard in Beethoven's Emperor. And while the Schoenberg went down well, with that monster of the Emperor trouble started almost immediately. He didn't simply lose the orchestra at times -- their fault as much as his, they've spent too much time without a music director and their sound has suffered -- but he did in spades what he does whenever he's in trouble -- he simply made mistakes, technical ones. He can be striking, and sometimes instead he just wings it. He's an unreliable concert pianist at this point, period. Opera Chic has heard him play wonderfully and just plain badly.
Last night OC wasn't there but, for once, one of Barenboim's bad nights (there have been others) hasn't been greeted with the usual perfunctory applause because let's face it he always conducts beautifully and everybody respects his commitment to peace -- but this time the loggione booed.
Let me repeat it: Barenboim got booed, for the first time, here in Milan. Loudly.
No matter how much some people tried to clap louder to drown out the boos, three friends in different parts of the opera house told Opera Chic that the booing was clearly audible, and sustained. And many who didn't really feel like booing -- they do respect the man and the artist, and OC isn't into booing either, so she wouldn't have, personally -- many simply didn't clap.
The problem with Barenboim the pianist is that he's just too uneven -- too unreliable. Unacceptable at his level of accomplishment, in this kind of venue. Opera Chic skips most of the (frequent) Barenboim piano concerts here in Milan because, frankly, not only we're quite clearly at the point now where he's a much better conductor than he is a pianist, but we're sad to report that he's really not that much of a solid pianist anymore -- too many lapses, simply.
Maurizio Pollini, who's from Milan, by the way, plays frequently la Scala, and eats Barenboim's lunch with his trademark cool X-ray powers of analysis and spotless architecture. We're priviliged to hear frequently, here in Milan, not just the best pianist of them all, the magic Grigory Sokolov, but Kissin is a frequent -- yearly -- visitor, too, and he's now a technically much more accomplished pianist than Danny B., former child prodigy that he is. Ethereal Rudolf Buchbinder often plays Milan, too, reminding us of what we talk about when we talk about Mozart. Radu Lupu's going to be here soon, to fiercely illuminate us from the catacumbal gloom of Conservatorio -- maybe he has time to chat with Barenboim, who knows. A quick Masterclass between friends, discreetly?
An intensely punishing schedule, worldwide travel, three orchestras to juggle (one of which is a huge organizational headache by itself, since traveling around the world -- and especially the Middle East -- with Israeli and Palestinian musicians is a recipe for uniquely bizarre visa troubles) books and speeches will ultimately lead you to sloppy, overworked, overthought, unnatural pedal work. A man of genius such as Barenboim must know, somewhere in the depths of his supreme self-confidence, that you cannot muscle and pedal your way out of trouble. And that an unreliable concert pianist is a pianist who needs to go back to the drawing board. It's not just singers who can blow out their voices -- pianists can bury their talent under too many unsubtle accents and too many missed practice sessions (memory will help you up to a point, and you can't will a mistake into submission, not when you're trying to tame the Emperor).
And there will always be someone in the audience who knows when you're winging it.
Sometimes, like last night in the loggione, they'll even signal that to you. As much as they want to like you.