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Q&A with Daniel Barenboim

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(CNN) -- The world-renowned conductor and pianist, often dubbed "maestro of the Middle East," talks to CNN about his craft, the loves of his life and how he copes with criticism.

CNN: What makes a great conductor?

Barenboim: I would need 24 hours on CNN to explain this to you. It is such a complex question.

To be a great conductor requires a lot of knowledge of the essence of music, it requires knowledge of the phenomenology of sound, how that works. It requires the ability to make people want to play, it requires the ability to animate the orchestra, to teach, to cajole, and at the same time, to learn from what you hear from good players in the orchestra. In every orchestra there is somebody that always shows you something that you haven't quite thought of before. So it is a very complex, wonderful way of life.

CNN: Is it a position of power?

Barenboim: No, it's not. The conductor decides on the orchestra, the times, the music etc. But when the orchestra plays and it is either unwilling or unable to play like the conductor wanted, he is totally powerless. And as powerlessness often does, it makes people think they are very powerful. And that's why conductors' egos are so famous.

CNN: What brought the transition from playing the piano to being a conductor?

Barenboim: I always wanted to conduct. I went to a class to study conducting for the first time when I was 11 years old.

The piano, if you want, is a much less interesting instrument at first sight than other instruments. With the violin, for example, you have to learn to find a note, how to hold the instrument, to take a bow, to vibrate. All of this -- the early stages -- is not only more sophisticated, but immediately you find that the sound of the instrument is very special and particular to it.

The piano -- with any object that you put pressure on the key -- makes a sound, and therefore, the sound is more neutral. The piano is actually, in the first stages, a very uncomplicated and less interesting instrument. The piano becomes interesting when you are able to imagine sonorities and you are able to draw them out of the piano, which means that, in a way, you orchestrate. You don't have to think, "I'm going to play this phase as an oboe, or like a violin or like a trumpet," but, in fact, this is what all great pianists have always done, you feel them orchestrating on the piano. The act of imagining orchestra sonorities in the piano is a condition to making piano playing interesting and I was also taught like this.

And therefore, when we were in Salzburg the first time when I was nine years old, I was curious and I went to listen, to look at the conductors' class. I was suddenly made aware of the fact that these were the real instruments that I tried to imagine and that the more I heard the orchestra, the more fertile my imagination became. And this is why I wanted to conduct.

CNN: What influence has the Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein had on your career?

Barenboim: My parents knew Rubinstein before I was born. He met them when my mother was pregnant with me, and so when I started playing the piano, it was almost natural that I would be brought in contact and played for him, which I did. And then I would go and play for him at regular intervals. He never taught me, he didn't teach but he always liked to keep an eye on my development and so I used to go and play for him regularly.

He also helped me in a practical way. He introduced me to all the people who managed his concerts in America and in Europe so that they would help me start my career too. And when I started conducting, the first concert I conducted with a major orchestra was Mozart in London with the Philharmonic Orchestra and he heard about that. And then he asked me whether I would conduct for him. So, in fact, Arthur Rubinstein was my first instrument soloist.

CNN: Is it true Rubinstein gave you your first cigar?

Barenboim: He gave me my first concert as a conductor, he gave me my first introduction to everything, he gave me my first cigar, he gave me my first vodka.

CNN: Which events have most shaped your career?

Barenboim: It has been kind of evolutionary. I went from one thing to the other. Some things came off better than others, but I never won a competition and had an overnight success or I never had an overnight success -- or at least an overnight failure, which in the end, in retrospect, I think is much healthier.

CNN: What has been the impact of having your late wife Jacqueline Du Pre in your life?

Barenboim: She was extraordinarily talented. I have never met somebody with quite that degree of natural talent. Music was pouring out of her pores, everywhere. She made me aware of the richness of a string instrument, the different types of sound. Coming from the piano, obviously, a lot of this was new to me.

She gave me a completely new dimension -- in terms of sound -- and I have to say, in terms of musical intensity. She was extraordinarily intense, she was one of the few people that became absolutely at one with her instrument. You never felt she played on the cello, it was like part of her. The cello became a part of her and she became a part of the cello and that's why there was a directness to the intensity with which she played which was flabbergasting. And that was, of course, unique inspiration.

CNN: How do you divide your time? What is a typical year for you?

Barenboim: Most of the time I spend looking for the 25th hour in the day, the ninth day in the week, the 32nd day in the month and the 367th, eighth or 70th day in the year because I feel I have a very rich life.

I have accumulated so many experiences, so much, that I want to be able to realize so many things. This is why I have basically given up most of my positions. I am the conductor for life of the Staatskapelle in Berlin, which fills me with tremendous joy because I feel absolutely at one with them. When we play, I have a feeling that together we manage to create one collective lung for the whole orchestra so that everybody in the stage breathes the music in the same way. But this is not an administrative position. I am also musical director of this opera house, the (Deutsche) Staatsoper in Berlin.

And that is it. Basically I am trying to clean my life of all administrative duties. This is also one of the main reasons why, in many ways, regretfully, I gave up the Chicago Symphony, which is the most fantastic orchestra, but it was just linked to so much administrative work that I didn't really feel I could take it any further.

I do this, I play the piano and the most important thing I do, for me, is the West-Eastern Divan Orchestraexternal link. That became the most important project for me as it was for Edward Said, too. And everything that is related to that, the music education program in (the West Bank) is also very important because it puts together everything that is important to me.

CNN: Do you feel misunderstood when you are described in the press?

Barenboim: When I played my first concert with an orchestra, I was eight years old in Berlin. I played Mozart and there were two equally important newspapers in Buenos Aires at the time. One was called "La Prensa," the Press, and the other was called "La Nation," The Nation. And one of them wrote that I was the greatest musical genius that came to this world since Mozart. And the other wrote that it was criminal to let an eight-year-old boy play a concert with an orchestra in public, especially when the boy was completely devoid of talent. This was from the same concert. So I learned very early on that one has to rely on one's judgment and not on the judgment of others as far as the music is concerned and I've tried to stick to it.


Barenboim says the Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, right, gave him his "first introduction to everything."

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