“Charles Barber, conductor and artistic director at City Opera Vancouver, became Kleiber’s pen-friend in the late 1980s. Kleiber, often lonely, was prone to form unlikely friendships—one was with a female bassoonist in a Luxembourg orchestra whom he spotted on television. Mr. Barber, by great persistence, achieved an epistolary intimacy with the great conductor over the last 15 years of his life…

“Once the book turns from biographical sketch to lively correspondence, we get the thrill of reading—hearing—the voice of Carlos Kleiber, and all is light… English was Kleiber’s native tongue, and he was never one for idle chat… He apologizes in the letters to Mr. Barber for an “obnoxious sense of humour” and criticizes one of his own videos in which the Concertgebouw players ‘were so stolid and uninterested and . . . my hair was flying every which way (I had forgotten the hairspray, the most important thing for a conductor right after knowing how to tie your own bow-tie, having shirts the right size and wearing braces that don’t shrink).’

“He was enthralled by the ungainly Klaus Tennstedt on television, ” ’cause he looked helpless and unpretentious and the orchestra . . . played for their lives!” He could be engagingly rude, deciding that, “Boulez’s poker face implies that the silly noise [he was conducting Varèse] neither surprises nor bothers him. Determined professionalism. It’s a job, you see.” He tells Mr. Barber that he is “never very rattled by Simon” (Rattle) and refers airily to Chicago’s “Sir Salty” (Sir Georg Solti).

“His observations range from the cheerful to the acidulous but are never malicious. When discussing music, Kleiber sticks to dry technicalities. His intellect was considerable, but if there was an inner life to Carlos Kleiber, he does not entrust it to paper. His favorite poet was Emily Dickinson. He was that inscrutable.”

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