on 21 March 2014
Having read the book, I came here expecting to find reviews that disliked its 'hagiographic' feel. What I found was indeed comment about that, but accompanied by "But who cares, I don't", which is exactly how I felt too. I devoured the book and loved it. However a few cautions:
1 - The first half of the book is 'biographical' - but who could unearth a biography of Carlos Kleiber? 100% immersed in music, studying it remorselessly, one actually wonders whether there would be enough of a normal set of external events to make interesting reading. Barber ends up listing lots of performances and the singers at each (for me, dull) interspersed with juicy little anecdotes (great!!).
2 - The second half contains the correspondence. Barber sends Kleiber video cassettes of various conductors, and Kleiber replies with his impressions. Well - sort of. One might expect to learn a ton about conducting from these reactions, but most of the time Kleiber does no more than say whether he likes or dislikes the conductors, in the latter case just adding an adjective like ' s***ty'.
3 - There are only a few likes! But they are very much of interest. For instance, he loves Boult; and he recommends Boulez at one point, while rubbishing him at another. This alone has one pondering on why he likes particular conductors, so from that one can maybe learn.
4 - There are plenty of conductors he's pretty rude about. (He quotes Piglet from Winnie the Pooh shouting "Look at me swimming!" to suggest a quality he really doesn't like - marvellous!) This rudeness suggests a partial parallel with Volkov's Shostakovich 'memoirs': no doubt the man said these things privately, but never remotely intended them for publication. But whereas Volkov's book would seem to be a 'dishonest presentation', such that one wouldn't even know what in it to trust or not, Barber's book is clean and up-front. He's chosen to offer these letters for publication (after removing personal, non-musical stuff), and we are delighted to read it. Thanks, and may it sell! (It surely will.)
There is one particular piece of advice that Barber does eventually manage to wring from Kleiber concerning Barber's own conducting, of which he has sent a videotape: "...you should look carefully [at the tape] and watch how the orch. reacts (how sweet of them!) to each of your movements in this rehearsal. If you're perceptive and observing you will see what not to do. (That's about 90% of what you did.)" So, nothing at all specific, yet at the same time, what better advice could there be? [And fair play to Mr Barber for including Kleiber's last sentence there.]
But if the book is not as full of clear-cut comment as one might have expected - though having read anything about Kleiber, perhaps one shouldn't have expected it - what does come through is the unending, ebullient high spirits and enthusiasm for music that bubbles out of both men. One comes away from the book full of this, making it a real inspiration. Thanks again, Mr Barber.
on 31 January 2015
Charles Barber is a conductor at the city opera of Vancouver who claims that "Dr Barber is one of only three persons known to have studied with him [Carlos Kleiber], and did so from 1989 to Mr Kleiber's death in 2004. Barber received more than 200 letters, faxes, postcards and cartoons from Mr Kleiber during the course of their long correspondence." Well, it was rather the other way round: Barber kept sending Kleiber video tapes of famous conductors and asked him to comment, which Kleiber did in a often very amusing, but hardly very analytic, didactic manner. While Kleiber comes across as a very funny, albeit withdrawn person, whose wide-ranging interests beyond conducting (e.g. Emily Dickinson's poetry, history, politics) and sense of humour are fascinating, I must admit that I found Barber's biographical summary and particularly his contributions to the correspondence not very enlightening. As for being "taught" by Kleiber, the latter has to point out himself twice when asked to write a reference for Barber that there was no sort of personal, active teaching relationship: "How can you expect me to say (write) anything about you as a DIRIGENT [conductor] when I ain't seen or heard you at it?" (p. 262). Yes, indeed. And Kleiber seems not to have liked the video of Barber's own conducting that much, as he didn't comment on it - his "Look at me swimming" quote from Winnie the Pooh says it all. But he is patient enough to explain to his "pupil" the difference between "Takt" (meter or pulse) and "Rhythmus" - surely a very basic concept which any aspiring conductor and musician ought to come to grips with.
Kleiber comes across as still deeply involved with music, in spite of hardly conducting in public in his last years. We can only speculate about the reasons - maybe perfectionism when he did not always get orchestras and singers to take up his ideas, maybe reclusiveness and lack of greed (apart from the occasional Audi), maybe health problems - it's really none of our business, and he was clearly irritated at Barber repeatedly offering advice on varicose veins, after all, he had never met his correspondent. But when Kleiber stopped answering Barber's messages, his "pupil" never suspected that anything more serious might be wrong.
As a German (so excuse any mistakes in my English), I also find it rather irritating that the author and publisher did not bother to check foreign words more carefully, there are plenty of misreadings, misspellings and wrong hyphenations of German words, misunderstandings and wrong translations in the notes - many of which are rather gratuitous, e.g. who needs an explanation of what an ISBN is? And sadly, Barber doesn't always get Kleiber's puns...
on 12 June 2016
There is a guilty pleasure in reading private letters. I read these avidly, knowing that I shouldn't. Kleiber did not intend his quips and jibes to be made public. The letters show him to be highly intelligent, well-read, intellectually curious, witty, mercurial, wary, impatient when his correspondent is slow on the uptake, morally flawed (who isn't?), complicated, elusive, an enigma wrapped in a deflecting witticism, embarrassed by adulation... Take your pick. None of it is our business. We are just being nosy. Our business is with his professional career and his recorded legacy. The biographical section of this book relies heavily on "Maestro" by Helena Matheopoulos. There is a full-length biography by Alexander Werner. I wish some publisher would get it translated from the German. There is no need for any of us to read any of these books, of course. Simply listen to the well-nigh miraculous music-making (and try not to mourn too much the all-too-many performances that might have been).