Interview: Pianist Inon Barnatan

Pianist Inon Barnatan has continued to impress music enthusiasts around the world for the last two-plus decades. The Israeli-born musician has an extensive repertoire ranging from Beethoven to Tchaikovsky.

Pianist Inon Barnatan

The 32-year-old cannot quite pinpoint when he’s been performing professionally because, well, he’s been performing since he was a child. He made his orchestral debut at 11 and somewhere between lessons and performing in the classroom, the concert stage appeared and he has continued to amaze audiences.

He has one solo album of Schubert’s piano works, another one due out this year—Darknesse Visible—and a collaborative work of Beethoven and Schubert with violinist Liza Ferschtman. He’s scheduled to perform for Lincoln Center’s Great Performers series in February following a European tour with cellist Alisa Weilerstein (with whom he’s performed before, though this will be his first European tour with her), will give more performances in Israel, the Spoleto Festival USA and a three-week concerto and recital tour in South Africa in November.

“I’ve been there (South Africa) for holiday and I loved it,” said Inon during a phone interview Dec. 30 before leaving for Israel to perform at the Red Sea Classical Music Festival. He’ll be performing about six or seven recitals in South Africa and will include some of the music from his “Darknesse” CD. Inon is looking forward to his tour and enjoying the staples the country has to offer. “It’s always nice to combine music and my other loves—travel, food and wine. There are few musicians who don’t really love food,” he added.

He’s also stopping in Jacksonville, Fla. for a debut concert with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 20 and 21 to perform Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 op. 44 in G Major. He’s been performing Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto for some time, but the second one, he says, is a new discovery for him.

He shared this discovery, as well his thoughts on his upcoming tour, latest CD and why pianist Leon Fleisher (who performed last season with the JSO—check it here) has a lasting resonance with him.

While it’s clear Inon Barnatan (pronounced Ee-non * Barn-ah-tahn) is a serious musician and noticeably accepts his responsibility to showcase the great compositions of long ago and today during his performances, he has a relaxed manner about him. Still, he does not hesitate to allow his thrill for music to overflow in conversation.

JML—You’ll be performing Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with the JSO. Tell us about this piece and what you enjoy most.
First, I really love it. It’s such a delight, a treat, to play a piece so few people know. It’s like discovering a new repertoire—you have to dig and find the composers and learn their tricks. Tchaikovsky is a well-loved and known composer, yet this concerto is rarely played. Perhaps it’s not as catchy as his first concerto, but it’s wonderful music and it’s a treat to be able to perform. It’s one of those concertos that makes a pianist feel like a “real” pianist. It’s virtuosic with a capital “V”—I sometimes have visions of the old cartoons with different characters playing the piano and their fingers are flying. My “meat and potatoes” are the great concertos by Brahms and Beethoven, but it’s a real joy to play pieces written with concert or performance in mind. They are fun for both the performer and the audience. Tchaikovsky’s concerto is unapologetically a showpiece, meaning it’s virtuosic and joyful and contains writing on a large scale. But it also has tender and lyrical moments, namely the expansive slow movement.

JML—It’s been said that this concerto requires a bit of athleticism and that it’s more demanding than Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto. Are there particular challenges that you had to overcome when you first learned the piece?
Work and work. It is quite challenging and it requires a lot of practice time. But besides the technical challenge, it’s a question of sound. One has to produce a sound that’s both heavy and light at the same time. It’s different to the sound that one would use for a Brahms, Ravel or Haydn concerto (all of which I am playing and practicing at the moment). One challenge for me is to switch gears, both musically and technically, so that each piece has its own unique sound world.

JML—What do you hope the audience will take away from this performance?
It’s a very uplifting and dazzling piece. I hope that people come out liking the “other” Tchaikovsky concerto. I’m performing it in its full version with its uncut second movement, which is basically a triple concerto with very extensive violin and cello solos. I guess some pianists didn’t like to share the limelight and it’s partly for that reason that even in Tchaikovsky’s lifetime the movement was edited drastically, with Tchaikovsky’s approval, by eliminating the cello solos and violin and cutting it in half. I’m looking forward to hearing the original version with the principle violinist (Philip Pan) and principle cellist (Alexei Romanenko) of the Jacksonville Symphony.

JML—You have an extensive tour schedule coming up. What are you looking forward to in your tour with cellist Alisa Weilerstein?

Cellist Alisa Weilerstein (photo: Jamie Jung)

IB—Alisa and I are spending just over two weeks together from the end of January until mid-February, starting in Israel, my home country. I’m bringing her and a couple more musicians for a concerto evening, as well as some chamber music. Then we’ll begin our recital tour in Europe. It will be a very intense period, but I’m looking forward to it. We’ve played together before, but this is our first duo tour. We’re very good friends and we love playing together, but we’re both used to touring primarily on our own and it’s nice to get a chance to travel and play together in a more concentrated way. We’re also planning a concerto tour in 2013, so hopefully we won’t get sick of each other quite yet.

JML—Your CD – Darknesse Visible – will be coming out soon. What inspired you in your creation of this album and to choose the particular pieces you perform on it?
I’m particularly interested in inspiration and how different composers are influenced by non-musical art forms. As an interpreter, I approach a piece and try to understand it and channel it. I’m interested in how composers approach that process, how they channel a poem or a story, for example. All the pieces on the album are inspired by literature and poetry and they all explore light and darkness. That was another interesting thing for me. The way all of those composers are fascinated, like many artists before, in the dark side of literature. The music is phenomenal and the pieces relate to each other not only thematically, but also musically. Programming is a torturous thing, so it’s nice when, as a performer, you feel that a program makes sense on more than one level. The more I play this program and listen to it, the more connections I find between these pieces.

JML—What do you hope others will take away after listening to it?
I hope that the CD helps tell the stories in each of these masterpieces. Besides the fact that these are beautiful and bewitching pieces on their own, I hope that listening to them in this context helps enrich each of the pieces and present them in a slightly different light.

JML—Your bio mentions that pianist Leon Fleisher was “an influential teacher and mentor” and that after he invited you to study and perform Schubert sonatas as part of a Carnegie Hall workshop, the experience had a “lasting resonance” for you. Can you elaborate on that?
Fleisher has been a very significant influence on me. First of all, he’s one of the great pianists of the 21st Century. But he is also one of the most influential teachers. I think one of the reasons is that he teaches how to approach a piece of music, rather than how to play it. Similarly to the “teach a man to fish” proverb—when you learn as a young musician how to think about a piece of music, you can apply that continuously throughout your life. He would be the first to acknowledge that he himself had the same experience with his teacher, the great Artur Schnabel.

JML—Are your Lincoln Center performances a first? What is going through your mind as you prepare for these performances?
I am lucky that Lincoln Center has been one of the venues I’ve played in most in the United States. I am a guest artist of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, I have been awarded an Avery Fisher Career Grant from Lincoln Center in 2009 and I have performed in Lincoln Center dozens of times, but each time is very special. Just walking into that plaza is inspiring and it’s nice to feel at home somewhere so special.

JML—You reside in a converted warehouse in Harlem. Tell us about your place! How does the design of it help in your practice?
It is very hard to find a space in New York City that will fit a concert grand Steinway and even harder to find one that will do so comfortably and where you can practice without disturbing your neighbors! I was very lucky to find this place and it’s fun to live in such a vibrant and evolving neighborhood. My apartment used to be a speakeasy back in the ‘20s, so I like to think there are some Jazz-era ghosts floating around.

For samples of Inon’s music, click here

Upcoming Performances with Inon Barnatan:
Jan. 20 & 21, 2012

Tchaikovsky: Piano Concerto No. 2
Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

Jan. 31 – Feb. 14, 2012
European Tour with Alisa Weilerstein

Feb. 26 & 27, 2012
Lincoln Center

March 3 – 5, 2012
Saint-Saëns: Concerto for Piano No. 2 in G Minor, op. 22
Oregon Symphony

March 20, 2012
Midwestern State University (Wichita Falls, TX)

March 28, 2012
Wheaton College (Norton, Mass.)

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