In 1997, Daniel Barenboim conducted the Vienna Philharmonic at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. On one program was a Beethoven piano concerto led from the keyboard and played with expert polish but little inspiration. Outside, protesters objected to the politically incorrect Austrians -- not exactly hasty in hiring women -- and the scrappy demonstrators' conviction appeared of greater urgency than the music making.
Truth be told, all that ossified perfection on stage, even when the orchestra woke up for a Strauss tone poem, was a little creepy. Barenboim, then in his mid-50s and since his teens one of the world's most famous musicians, had gotten dull.
Barenboim returned to Segerstrom Hall on Friday night with the Staatskapelle Berlin. Beethoven -- the Fifth Symphony -- was again on a drearily conventional program that began with Schumann's moldy "Manfred" Overture and his Fourth Symphony. But it was not dull. During the past five or six years, Barenboim has done some waking up of his own. Despite also presiding over the Chicago Symphony and the German State Opera in Berlin, he can, these days, seem to have more in common with the protesters than with the establishment.
Perhaps that has to do with his recent outspokenness, which has included harsh attacks against Israeli policy as well as constructive work in building bridges with Palestinian musicians. Barenboim has lately demonstrated himself to be a thinker (which he previously hid from public view) in a recent book of conversations with the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said. And he has become a feisty political presence in Berlin, where he has headed the Staatskapelle since 1990.
The Staatskapelle is, by orchestra standards, ancient, formed in 1570, almost two centuries before the birth of what we consider the modern symphony orchestra. Since German unification, the Staatskapelle, which was in the East, has fought for a piece of the dwindling Berlin arts subsidy pie, and without Barenboim's agitation, it would probably be negligible by now.
An obsessive cyclist, Barenboim has led several international Beethoven symphony and concerto cycles (and he'll throw in the piano sonatas for not much else) with the Staatskapelle. A couple of years ago in Berlin, he conducted all 10 mature Wagner operas in a cycle. Now he is on to Schumann. When the Staatskapelle ends its tour in New York, it will perform four all-Schumann concerts with the help of such impressive soloists as Radu Lupu, Gidon Kremer and Yo-Yo Ma. Barenboim and the orchestra have also just released a CD set of the four Schumann symphonies.
Whether those concerts will be all too much or revelatory is hard to say from the Orange County appearance. Can the sense of urgency that this orchestra produced Friday be maintained over a longer range? The fact is that Schumann's Fourth and Beethoven's Fifth were played as though it were a matter of the greatest importance that one note follow the next.
Perhaps Barenboim's political engagement has had something to do with this. The conductor showed little patience for niceties Friday, all of his attention focused on the big picture. His podium manner has become more spastic, the work of a general who has no time for nonsense. The Schumann symphony began with a grand sweep and rarely paused to catch a breath. The Scherzo was the flight of a cannonball, beginning with the explosion. Beethoven's Fifth was even more driving. An army train leaves the station bound for war and, in battle, defeats the forces of darkness.
The Staatskapelle is not a great orchestra, but it has personality. It is so austerely dark-toned that you can almost believe its concertmaster is a violist. Even the high winds are unusually Cimmerian. Although the orchestral sound is built from the bottom range up, it is not in the soulful way of a Russian orchestra with a foundation in the double basses, but more booming. Here the timpani are the sonic footprint.
It is tempting to think of this as a holdover from the orchestra's harsh life in East Germany, and unlike other major Berlin orchestras, the roster is still almost exclusively German. But whatever the reason, it is a gripping sound. And it presses Barenboim into an exhortative, crisis-management style of conducting that is meaningfully of the moment and genuinely exciting.