Daniel Barenboim, titan of conducting, to step down in Berlin
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Daniel Barenboim, titan of conducting, to step down in Berlin
Conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim leads the Staatskapelle Berlin orchestra at Carnegie Hall in New York, Jan. 19, 2017. Barenboim, a reigning conductor and towering figure in German culture, has resigned from his post as the Berlin State Opera’s general music director — a position he has held for over three decades — because of health problems, the opera house announced on Friday, Jan. 6, 2023. (Hiroyuki Ito/The New York Times)

by Javier C. Hernández and Alex Marshall

NEW YORK, NY.- Daniel Barenboim, a towering conductor and pianist who as general music director of the Berlin State Opera over the past three decades built an artistic empire without rival and helped define German culture in the aftermath of reunification, will resign his post this month because of health problems, the opera house announced Friday.

Barenboim, 80, who was diagnosed last year with a serious neurological condition, said in a statement that his illness made it impossible for him to carry out his duties.

“Unfortunately, my health has deteriorated significantly over the past year,” he said. “I can no longer provide the level of performance that is rightly demanded of a general music director.” His resignation is effective Jan. 31.

Barenboim, one of classical music’s biggest stars, had hoped to return to his famously frenzied schedule this year. But the ongoing uncertainty of his condition placed strains on the State Opera — the company was left scrambling to find substitutes, including for a highly anticipated new production of Richard Wagner’s “Ring” cycle last fall — and made it difficult to find a path forward.

Matthias Schulz, the State Opera’s director, said that the company was grateful to Barenboim, who turned the Staatskapelle Berlin (the pit orchestra of the State Opera) into one of the world’s most revered ensembles.

But, Schulz said, it had become increasingly clear that Barenboim could not be the stable figure the musicians needed, noting that he appeared with the company less than 10 times in 2022, compared with more than 50 times in previous years.

“He took responsibility for the fact that he just cannot be sure what he really can fulfill,” Schulz said in an interview.

Barenboim was unavailable for comment, a spokesperson for the opera house said.

Born to Jewish parents in Argentina, Barenboim has been a fixture in the German artistic and political scene for decades and has helped define the country’s modern culture since the reunification of East and West Germany. In 1989, three days after the fall of the Berlin Wall, he led the Berlin Philharmonic in a concert dedicated to the citizens of East Germany.

He has become an influential public figure in Germany and beyond. In 1999, along with Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, he created the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, providing a forum for young Arab and Israeli musicians to play together.

Klaus Lederer, Berlin’s senator for culture, called Barenboim “an artist of the century and one of the most remarkable personalities working in Berlin.” He said in a statement that stepping down was the right choice, even though it was not easy for Barenboim.

“His decision was made in a reflective manner; it puts the well-being of the State Opera and the Staatskapelle Berlin in the foreground,” Lederer said. “All of this deserves the greatest respect.”

During his tenure in Berlin, Barenboim brought the Staatskapelle to new heights, frequently leading international tours and securing hundreds of millions of euros in government grants to finance his ambitions. He co-founded a music conservatory, the Barenboim-Said Akademie, which opened in 2016. He persuaded officials to build the Pierre Boulez Saal, a Frank Gehry-designed hall housed in the same building as the conservatory, which opened in 2017. And he pushed a costly renovation of the opera house’s main theater, which was finished that same year. The State Opera now has 587 employees and a budget of more than 81.4 million euros ($86.6 million).

There have been troubles along the way, but Barenboim maintained his grip on power. In 2019, members of the Staatskapelle accused him of bullying; later that year, though, the opera house, saying that it could not verify the accusations, extended his contract through 2027.

He seemed set to reign indefinitely in Berlin, but health woes forced him to cancel performances last spring and summer as he recovered from surgery and grappled with circulatory issues. In October, having disclosed his neurological condition, he said he was taking time off to “focus on my physical well-being as much as possible.” He canceled his participation in the new “Ring,” a herculean undertaking seven years in the making that had been built around him, as well as a planned tour in Asia with the Staatskapelle and a concert in Berlin in November to celebrate his 80th birthday.

As he rested at home, he initially resisted resigning his post and told friends and family that he planned to return to the podium. But even as he kept up some appearances, attending rehearsals and teaching classes in Berlin, his ability to lead the opera house full time grew increasingly uncertain.

On New Year’s Eve, he appeared to be making steps toward recovery when he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Berlin while sitting down. But critics noted that he at times seemed unsteady and did not deliver remarks to the audience, as he sometimes does on such occasions.

His future activity at the podium is uncertain, but this week, he is scheduled to conduct three concerts with the Berlin Philharmonic and pianist Martha Argerich, a childhood friend, although in an altered, less physically demanding program. It is unclear whether he will reduce his commitments at the Divan Orchestra, the conservatory or the Pierre Boulez Saal.

Barenboim’s resignation will mark the end of an era at the State Opera. Schulz said it was too early to know when the company might name a successor.

“There’s no need to rush it,” Schulz said. “It’s more important that this institution makes the right decision for the future, and it’s absolutely possible to take time for that.”

But it may prove challenging to find a figure of Barenboim’s stature. The Staatskapelle’s musicians have likened their three-decade relationship with him to a marriage.

“There are not so many people at the moment who can run an opera house of this size and reputation coming out of the era of Barenboim,” said Manuel Brug, a cultural critic in Germany. “It’s unique that somebody stayed for 30 years and had the possibility to form something like this. It will be hard to follow.”

Barenboim said in his statement Friday that his time at the opera house had inspired him “musically and personally in every respect.” He hoped to continue conducting at the State Opera, he added. He will retain the honorary title of principal conductor for life, conferred on him by the musicians.

“Of course, I will remain closely connected to music,” he said, “as long as I live.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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