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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Barenboim's piano prodigy

By Norman Lebrecht / February 13, 2008

In the wings of Daniel Barenboim’s epochal cycle of Beethoven’s piano sonatas at the Royal Festival Hall stands a slight young man with a look of pinched concentration and a wisp of ironic amusement. Karim Said is Barenboim’s long-term protégé, a teenaged pianist of whom the maestro told a musical veteran: ‘what you can’t learn, he knows already.’

The admiration is reciprocal. ‘I’ve been to every performance of the Beethoven,’ says Karim, ‘and what cranks me most is that every time Mr Barenboim goes on stage you hear an orchestra – oboes, flutes, strings. It’s not piano music any more. There is a clarity he gets that other pianists don’t have. I have to get rid of a lot of clutter before I get what I want at the piano. For him, it’s like sitting down to a nice meal…’

Just 19, Karim has expressed more aptly than many critics the seeming effortlessness of Barenboim’s playing, along with its kaleidoscopic colours. As a chosen disciple, Karim has had the best of starts and now he is ready for lift-off. In May, a tracker documentary about his progress over seven years by the award-laden filmmaker Christopher Nupen will be shown at the Barbican, ahead of a BBC4 broadcast premiere. British orchestras and conductors are lining him up. He has an agent. By the end of the year, Karim Said will be a hot property.

Right now, though, he is riding the Northern Line to college from digs in High Barnet and playing gigs in outlying suburbs. I heard him at a winter night's recital in a church in Perivale where his best efforts in Beethoven and Debussy were numbed by an ill-tuned piano. Still, there was no mistaking the shape he gave to the music, the interpretative ingenuity and mischievous wit, and I came away wanting to hear more – both of Karim’s playing and of how a boy from a twice-exiled family is making his way to the forefront of the international concert stage.

Karim’s grandparents fled west Jerusalem in 1948; his parents left Beirut after the 1982 Israeli invasion. Born and raised in Amman, he counts himself a Palestinian. His father, Basim, plays jazz guitar and runs an office supplies business; his mother, Dina, is a teacher. The family is nominally Anglican, an embattled creed in the Islamic crescent.

Backstage whispers have attributed Karim’s ascent to a blood-tie with the late academic Edward Said, whose friendship with Barenboim prompted the formation of an East West Diwan Orchestra of young Arabs and Israelis. When I ask Karim if Edward had anything to do with his advancement, he confides that the two families had been living in different countries and were held apart by dark secrets.

‘Edward Said and my grandfather were cousins,’ he explains, ‘but because of complicated Palestinian families, they were more than just cousins. Two people got married who really shouldn’t have, can we leave it at that? In 1999, aged 11, I came to the Diwan orchestra not even knowing that Edward Said was its co-founder. Mr Barenboim discovered the connection and introduced us.’

Karim had been playing the piano since he was five, studying with a Russian escapee from the first Iraq war – ‘in Amman, everyone is a refugee.’ An audition tape won him a place at the Purcell School on the outskirts of London, where he formed his own Beethoven orchestra, conducted with gusto and began composing. At his second Diwan summer, Christopher Nupen said to him: ‘would you like to spend seven years making a film?’

Karim chuckles at the recollection. ‘Edward Said said: “Absolutely not! The press are our enemy. You are far too young. They will ruin you.” But Christopher promised that the film would be released only at the right time and my parents gave consent.’

The pair grew so close that Karim describes Nupen, 73, as ‘almost a father.’ Nupen says, ‘I consider myself his elder brother. We talk all the time, at least five times a week.’ The opening credit to their documentary reads, ‘A film by Christopher Nupen and Karim Said,’ and the BBC will show it in a season of Nupen portraits of Jacqueline du Pre, Itzhak Perlman, Pinchas Zukerman, Nathan Milstein, Evgeny Kissin and this slight lad from Amman called Karim Said. That’s quite a lot for a student to live up to.

‘Is this the right time?’ demands Karim. ‘It has to be. From this point onwards, once the film is shown, things will come up. After that, it’s up to me.’

So far, he has played and conducted mostly in Arab capitals but a recent audition with Sir Colin Davis led to a tour with the English Chamber Orchestra and the connection with Barenboim, who asks to hear him play every few months, has added discipline to his development and allowed him to avoid the rat race.

‘My generation,’ he laments on the steps of the Royal Academy of Music where he’s in his second year, ‘is about getting to competitions. I have never attended one where I felt the winner deserved it. I hear them ticking boxes at the piano. They have been trained for everything, even to show feeling. I was lucky. I have my position with Mr Barenboim. Sometimes he hears me play 15 minutes before he goes on stage. Other times I get a message from him to prepare a piece for the next Diwan.’

Coming from the Middle East, he cannot avoid political fallout. Would he, if invited, agree to play in Israel? ‘I’d rather not talk about it,’ he hedges. ‘As a Jordanian I am allowed, but I also have a Lebanese passport, which makes it illegal for me. My grandmother lives in Beirut. I love to visit her.’

His role models, Barenboim apart, are Arthur Rubinstein ‘who made it look so easy’ and Kissin – ‘perfection’. But Karim Said has a chance of making just as big a splash. He is young, gifted and one of very few Arabs on the classical concert stage at a time when the Arab world is investing heavily in orchestras and halls. He is the first Palestinian to have advanced in this field, which he knows can be a minefield. That is an unenviable burden for any young musician, but Karim Said wears it as lightly as his college kitbag, tossed across his shoulder on the eve of his media debut.

To be notified of the next Lebrecht article, please email mikevincent at scena dot org

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



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