Barenboim and Mehta: Were they on the same page?

An intriguing question from Rodney Greenberg, director of live concerts on British TV:

barenboim mehta

There’s a story about Mehta partnering Barenboim in a Beethoven concerto. The jet-setters haven’t had time to rehearse and Barenboim arrives at the concert just in time. He settles at the piano and looks at the maestro. Mehta stares back. Long silence. Barenboim frowns, gets up, looks at the score on the conductor’s stand. It’s Beethoven Number 4. Says ZM: “So? I was waiting for you to start.” DB: “But I thought tonight we’re doing Number 3?”

Can anyone say:

[1] Whether this actually happened or is it just a good yarn?
[2] If it’s true, how was it resolved? [Clue: the conductor’s score being No. 4, so were all the orchestral parts in front of the players. And… DB has a fabulous memory].

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  • Originally heard this story in the mid 70s told by the then Bishop-Kovacevich. Cannot remember who the conductor was. Pianist had a quick mental gear change and played the concerto No 4.

    • Never heard of this, but the one of Maria Ojai Pires in Amsterdam promptly obliging to change to Mozart 21 is true, the video is on YouTube with her discussing with the conductor before deciding to change.

  • Originates with Josef Hofmann and (two versions) either Wakter Damrosch of the old NY Symphony or Frederick Stock of the Chicago Symphony. The confusion was between the Beethoven 4th and the Schumann concertos.

  • Spivakov tells a similar story about Kondrashin and two different Mozart concerto’s. I can find the exact wording in Russian from the memoirs of Lev Markiz.

  • There’s a similar story in the published biog of Alfredo Campoli who was expecting the drumroll of Bruch 1st concerto and instead got the start of Mendelssohn concerto – having just a couple of seconds to readjust.

    NL has interviewed Barenboim in the past – maybe he could write to DB’s people and find out the answer to this point ?

  • Years ago I heard a story of Isaac Stern arriving directly from the airport for a performance with an orchestra (I don’t remember whether the story identified it or the conductor), fully convinced that he was to play the Beethoven concerto, though the conductor and orchestra were primed for Mendelssohn. According to the account (purely oral — I never saw this in writing anywhere), at the conductor’s downbeat, Stern’s eyebrows rose and he whipped the violin to his chin and started playing the “wrong” concerto within aboiut one second. When I first heard the story, in my innocence, i was impressed — but every time I think about it again I laugh at the sheer improbability.

  • I heard a more amusing variant, totally in character with what I have observed in both these gentlemen, but probably too good to be true. The story goes that they were collaborating on the Schumann Concerto, which of course begins with a sharp A Minor chord in the orchestra, immediately followed by a downward flourish in the piano.
    Supposedly, Mehta intentionally gave the downbeat before DB was ready and he had to scramble to play his opening passage. The problem with messing around with Maestro Bareboim, in my experience, is that you are highly unlikely to get the last laugh.
    The first movement completed, Danny signaled to Mehta that he was having some sort of difficulty before they began the second movement. Mehta came off the podium to see what the problem was, and as soon as he did, Barenboim played the opening four chords of the movement, which of course are answered immediately by the orchestra–or should be if the conductor is actually on the podium.

    • The anecdote is exactly as I have heard it too (so it must be true), but it’s more fun to demonstrate it live at the piano.
      They repeated the concerto recently in Berlin, unfortunately without the pranks.

    • I first heard that story 30+ years ago, with Ashkenazy as the pianist and the conductor unnamed. Probably more believable happening between Mehta and Barenboim :-p

  • I heard that story many years ago. It supposedly happened at the Hollywood Bowl, but with two different principles: Jerome Lowenthal was the pianist, and I’ve forgotten who was conducting……

    Best regards, Norman and Rodney!

    Martin Bookspan
    shanasima@juno.com

    • I believe there is also a Beecham version, with the knight arriving in the pit expecting to conduct Figaro, but the concertmaster correcting him to Così. Or perhaps it was the reverse….

      • There is definitely one of Klemperer in Peter Heyworth’s biography arriving at the Vienna Philharmonic in 1934 or 35 to conduct Bruckner 4 and, told that they wanted Bruckner 7, conducting it from memory.

  • Many years ago, I had an LP with Gary Graffman playing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. If memory serves, an interview with Mr. Graffman constituted the bulk of the liner notes, and he told of a mix-up between these two Rachmaninov pieces when he showed up at a rehearsal prepared to play the Rhapsody, but the orchestra and conductor were expecting the Concerto. After Graffman and the conductor had finally discovered why the other wasn’t beginning the work supposedly on the program, Graffman said, “No problem” and launched into the Concerto, no doubt with a smile.

  • First heard this story in the mid seventies. I am sure then it involved Bishop-Kovacevich. My recollection is that he took some deep breaths and played the required concerto. May have picked this up on Face the Music.

  • Pretty sure this happened to Heifetz in a recording – but not sure of details. He turned up ready to play X but they were recording Y. Not a problem!

  • Okay, if we’re sharing favorite anecdotes… Thomas Beecham apparently liked to use his prodigious memory to mess with people’s heads. He showed up at the opera house one night a mere couple of minutes before curtain, and walked into the pit with the score of “The Marriage of Figaro” under his arm. The orchestra started buzzing in agitation. “Maestro,” said the concertmaster in a tense whisper when Beecham ascended the podium, “we’re doing ‘Seraglio’ tonight!” “My dear fellow, you amaze me!” replied Beecham in mock alarm, and proceeded to conduct “Seraglio” from memory.

    • I heard tell the maestro thought he was doing Midsummer Nights Dream and got Mastersingers instead.

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