“Confession:  you are the only person that ever writes to me! I have successfully alieanated (spelling?) all other would-be correspondents. If they are American, I do it with Abe. With other countries… well, I find a way! My specialty (or, British, “speciality”) is mocking serious young letter-writers à propos “MUSIC”. They give up PDQ, pouting.”

Carlos Kleiber
3 May 1993

This book is a biography, an examination of Carlos Kleiber’s art and career. It is the voice of Carlos himself, in letters and faxes and postcards and cartoons. It is also personal, and claims no exacting academic objectivity. I knew him, and liked him very much, and admired him tremendously.

It all began in 1987. I was entering my third year in graduate school at Stanford University, there to study conducting with Andor Toth and to make a career in that absurdly difficult field. Prof Toth was a generous and deeply musical mentor, one of the most graceful and elegant phrase-makers I had ever encountered. He encouraged me to look afar. He granted extraordinary opportunities for study, experiment, leadership, apprenticeship, and connection to the European tradition that so shaped his own art as violinist and conductor. He asked me to start planning ahead, post-school. I was to do so, but in a direction neither of us could have imagined.

In May of that year my friend Mark Rubin, a vocalist and physics major, came to the office and asked if I was interested in going on a bicycle trip. Sure, I said, thinking he meant pedaling four miles west to Woodside or thereabouts.

“Let’s go to Los Angeles,” Mark said, and spread out a map. I laughed.

Next month, we were on our way. We traveled like turtles along the 500 miles and 11 days of our trip, but one night camped out in a motel instead of the usual parks and ditches. Mark commandeered the shower and I sat on a bed, channel-surfing. I landed on the local public television station and heard Beethoven’s fourth symphony. And then I saw the conductor.

Flashing energy and discipline, humor and release, this man was at the same moment doing everything and nothing. It was the most startling display of musical fireworks and singing eloquence I had ever seen on any podium. No other conductor worked like this, and within minutes I was shouting at Mark.

“Hey, get out here. You’ve got to see this conductor. He’s incredible!”

“Who is he?” Mark asked. I didn’t have a clue.

We watched until the end, utterly transfixed by a perfect Rolls-Royce of conducting power and beauty and comprehension. Only at the end did we learn his name. Weeks later I phoned Mr Toth and described our summer’s adventure, and told him about the Beethoven I had seen.

“So you’ve discovered Carlos Kleiber have you?” he asked. Yes, I said. “Well, you’re absolutely right. There is no one else like him.” He proceeded to tell me a bit about Kleiber’s unusual career and reputation.

Over the next year I listened to his CDs, read articles and reviews, and started collecting video and laser discs (we remember laser discs), marveling anew at each unexpected and inarguable turn he took –- most particularly in opera, as I would discover.

In the fall of 1988 I met once more with Mr Toth, this after our Stanford Symphony tour of Asia. I wanted to talk about post-doctorate planning. I was close to a decision and wanted his views.

“I’m going to study opera with Carlos Kleiber,” I told him. “I’d like to be his assistant. What do you think?” Prof Toth laughed with that unnerving smile of his, softened his voice and said, “I don’t think you should count on it. I don’t believe he’s ever had a student. He hasn’t had a regular job for years, and he hardly ever works. He’s pretty eccentric. It would be wonderful, but don’t get your hopes up.”

I heard much the same from other teachers, but wanted to give it a try. How could I get his address? He didn’t seem to have an agent, and wasn’t listed in any of the professional reference books. Should I try CAMI?

“Well sure, try them. But just don’t be too disappointed. Kleiber never talks to anyone.”

I phoned Ron Wilford at Columbia Artists Management in New York, spoke to his secretary Carolyn Webber, told her who I was and what I was after.

“I don’t believe that Maestro Kleiber has students,” she declared, very politely.

“So I understand, but I’d like to try anyway. Would you have his address?”

“Yes,” she said.

“I know you couldn’t possibly give it to me.”

“That’s right.”

“But could you forward a letter for me?”

“Yes, I can do that. But please don’t expect a reply. Maestro Kleiber doesn’t answer very many letters, and rarely sees people.”

And so I spent some weeks fashioning a letter intended to open his door, and early hit on the key:  humor. He must receive letters from every ambitious young conductor in the world, I reasoned. If he answered none of them, they must share some common affliction. What might that be? Self-importance, no doubt, a reflux of self-interest. So I charted a path to demonstrate how I could be of service to him, and did so with self-deprecating jokes (it was self-evident he had a fantastic sense of humor) and a straightforward pitch. It went in the mail on January 25, 1989.

Two weeks later I came home one night, a long day of reading and rehearsal over. I lived in the back of a garage, and a friend was visiting. In the mailbox was a letter written in a hand I didn’t recognize. It had no return address. I looked at the postmark: München. Absurdly, my hand started to shake.

“Artie, could you open this? It might be from…”

“Oh no!” he laughed. “Carlos Kleiber?” He opened and read it aloud, three times.

10 Responses to “Introduction”

  1. angela March 6, 2012 at 1:44 pm # Reply

    “Absurdly, my hand started to shake…..”

    Capisco e condivido questa emozione…deve essere stata una grande gioia, inaspettata, ma sperata!


  2. admin March 19, 2012 at 8:09 am # Reply

    by Sedgwick Clark

    A New Carlos Kleiber Bio—in ENGLISH!

    Alison Ames informs me that Corresponding with Carlos: A biography of Carlos Kleiber by Charles Barber has been published by Kindle, available through Amazon for $52.69. The reader reviews, which seem astute, are raves, and two of the reviewers find the price well worth it. Here’s the link:

  3. Matiàs Serra Bradford April 7, 2012 at 10:56 am # Reply

    5 April 2012

    Dear Charles,

    Just finished your capolavoro [masterpiece]. In tears. But do tears work as words of praise? Beginning to sound Dickinsonian, so I’ll stop. Far too late in the night. Moved, among a million things, by CK’s good words on Gulda, and your bringing the curtain down with Argerich (on whom no words, alas, by the Maestro).

    Believe me, at times I got somewhat lost and did not know who was writing to whom (Charles and Carlos, mutually borrowed nicknames from a Laurel & Hardyesque duo on paper. What a performance.) Raiding quotes all over the place. Bravo. More as soon as recuperated from this open-heart surgery, if you know what I mean.

    with affection, and admiration,

    Matias, or, The Octopus That Did Not Cry Like A Crocodile

    Matiàs Serra Bradford
    Buenos Aires

  4. John Bleau October 5, 2012 at 12:42 pm # Reply

    “a reflux of self-interest” – that’s a memorable line. I heard Barber say it in a BBC docu on Kleiber and it got me Googling just to make sure I heard right – and that landed me here.

  5. admin October 15, 2012 at 8:33 pm # Reply

    If you understand how special Kleiber was and love his music-making, this book is essential. Barber is obviously a brilliant guy himself (how else could he have gotten and retained the attention of someone like Kleiber for so long) and he’s done justice to his relationship with this unique musician. Barber’s description of Kleiber’s last Rosenkavalier brought me to tears.

    Donald C Allen, Amazon Reviews

  6. pierrotfr February 14, 2013 at 3:33 pm # Reply

    My english is too poor to read this book. I’m so sorry ! Do you know il will be translated and published in french ?

    • admin July 2, 2013 at 4:52 am # Reply

      Malheureusement, non.

    • admin July 30, 2014 at 3:50 am # Reply

      Please forgive this very late reply. Yours came to my attention just now. There are plans to translate into German and Japanese, and the Korean version has been completed; alas, no plans for French. Merci bien!

  7. Ivo June 9, 2013 at 2:13 pm # Reply

    Fascinating…. not least because the “encounter” episode closely mimics how in 1970s another young conductor “met” for the first time his future mentor (in the wee hours in a remote mountain villa the young Bulgarian conductor Emil Chakarov had heard on the radio Mozart’s “Jupiter” symphony as he had ever imagined the score; in the end, to his annoyance, the program continued with another piece without announcing the performers; he had to run in the night to the nearest public phone to inquire about the conductor only to be told he was Karajan. Later Chakarov won a competition, and became a pupil of his.

    • rosella formenti October 29, 2013 at 4:58 pm # Reply

      Ho appena terminato la lettura di “Corresponding with Carlos”: grazie a Charles Barber, libro straordinario, indispensabile e prezioso per chi ama Carlos, Anima della Musica! rosella

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