Corresponding with Carlos: A Biography of Carlos Kleiber

spacer By Charles Barber
Scarecrow Press; 363 pp. $85

Books Carlos Kleiber cover 512

Since the death of Carlos Kleiber, in 2004, the maestro's reputation, not to mention his mystique, has grown appreciably. Son of the famous conductor Erich Kleiber, Carlos eclipsed his father's shadow through his own uncompromising pursuit of excellence and an ineffable sympathy for musical expression. Though he was known for demanding inordinate numbers of rehearsals (especially in standard repertory), and for last-minute cancellations, no-shows, walkouts and a total disinterest in marketing himself, a night with Kleiber on the podium often made up for any hassles that preceded his first downbeat. His performances consistently left a blissfully dazed wake of artists and audiences. Barbara Bonney, one of Kleiber's frequent Sophies in Der Rosenkavalier, said, "We, the singers and orchestra, were thrown into his blender of musical genius and came out of a performance not quite knowing how it all happened. It was always like that with him. It was glorious." 

Chronicling the life of the notoriously private and reclusive conductor would be a tall order for any would-be biographer: the man never gave an interview, he published only a handful of writings, and his entire discography fits on a single shelf with plenty of room for Karajan spillover. Yet Kleiber, for all his limited output and elusiveness, is a venerated, even legendary figure — precisely the kind of artist that inspires writers to tell his story.

First to answer the call for a book-length study in English of Kleiber's life and career is conductor Charles Barber, with Corresponding with Carlos. As a biography, the volume has serious deficiencies of style, organization and original research, but Barber's attempt to shed light on his enigmatic subject has one unique and undeniably precious asset — his fifteen-year correspondence with Kleiber. That the inscrutable maestro would let his guard down and exchange letters with anyone for so long is surprising, but he clearly appreciated Barber's whimsical humor and passionate devotion to the art of conducting. Beyond their Northern California to Munich pen-pal exchanges, the two bonded over a joint project: Barber would comb through video archives for rare clips of famous conductors and make copies for Kleiber to critique and comment on. Like the nearly lost courtship ritual of exchanging mix-tapes, music broke the ice for a close connection.

Through this series of private missives made public, we, like voyeurs, see a wit and humanity Kleiber never intended to show. The unapproachable demigod vanishes as we read Kleiber's teasing complaints about America's uncritical reverence for Abraham Lincoln, quotes from his beloved Emily Dickinson, or references to his chosen profession as "stick-waving." Yet more than the man's sense of humor comes through. When Barber asks to use Kleiber's Fledermaus orchestra parts to copy the conductor's markings, the maestro gives him some excellent advice: "If you take someone else's material, the flight of your genius will be hampered. You will be confessing to laziness disguised as willingness to learn." 

While the epistolary section may validate much of the author's labors, the biography portion of Corresponding with Carlos, which occupies the first two-thirds of the book, is a great disappointment. Tedious, poorly organized and sloppily edited, Barber's work reads like a promising draft that — due to a paucity of copy editors, fact-checkers and peer reviewers — unhelpfully got fast-tracked to the printing house. The way remains clear for a definitive biography of this fascinating genius. spacer


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