Robert Thicknesse, President of the Critics’ Circle, went to Berlin to present Daniel Barenboim KBE with the Circle’s 2022 annual award “For Distinguished Service to the Arts”.
The presentation took place before a concert at the Barenboim-Said Akademie, where students at the conservatory attached to Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, from Israel, Palestine and other Arab countries, played a programme of Beethoven, Wagner and Prokofiev, with Barenboim conducting.
“The Circle believes wholeheartedly that professional and honest criticism is vital to the arts,” said Thicknesse in his presentation, “but we like to remind ourselves and others that our role is also to celebrate (and help others to celebrate) the arts. We make this award annually to someone who has enriched our lives and our culture. This award is a token of our love and admiration for a life of service to music and humanity, through your playing and conducting, and your unswerving devotion to the role of music to heal amid conflict.”
Barenboim is a thoroughly international figure, holding Israeli, Palestinian, Argentinian and Spanish passports, and he has been pre-eminent in German musical life since he became general music director of the Berlin State Opera in 1992, but in earlier years he had a particularly close connection with the UK – including of course his marriage to Jacqueline du Pre in 1967 – and he has continued to perform here frequently. Among his many honours, he is an honorary Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Thicknesse recalled Barenboim’s six decades of performing in Britain, from early piano recitals in short trousers to the 2015 Festival Hall concerts of Schubert’s sonatas, played on Barenboim’s custom built piano, and beyond.
Barenboim, who is 80, retired from his post at the Berlin State Opera in January this year, and is suffering from a “serious neurological condition”, but he is in good spirits and continues to conduct the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra and the students of the Akademie. The Orchestra and Akademie remain a unique monument to the belief that music and art can reconcile and bring people together amid the greatest conflict and strife. The spectacle of these young people performing together with joy and hope amid the horrors of current events in Israel and Gaza, with many of their families affected, was profoundly affecting.