Pianist Inon Barnatan – Classic Role-play
Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
Impressed with Barnatan, Alan Gilbert, Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, recently described the 35-year-old Israeli musician as “a wonderful pianist, a probing intellect, passionately committed, and a capable contemporary music pianist as well.” Gilbert, the leading force of New York’s mighty music citadel, in fact allocated an extraordinary position to Barnatan; this March, Barnatan performed Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G major with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, his debut with the orchestra, and the inauguration of the New York Philharmonic’s performer label, “Artist-in-Association.”
As the first soloist in the history of the New York Philharmonic, or any other world orchestra to my knowledge, Barnatan will be playing a sequence of contracted collaborations with the New York Philharmonic, including three different concerto performances during three seasons, as well as chamber music with musicians from the orchestra.
The pianist explains that Gilbert’s call came as a total surprise: “I had no idea about any of this when my manager got the call. I am much honored to be the first artist chosen for such a significant position. What Allan and his team do so well, by not just hiring different soloists for every season, is to nourish a deeper rapport with the artist. That applies not only to the new ‘Artist-in-Association’ series, but also to their already established ‘composer-in-residence’ program. They really mean it when they say they are looking to build meaningful relationships, and they put their money where their mouth is.”
Photo credit: Marco Borggreve
The ‘Artist-in-Association’ program consists of a continuing collaboration between artist and orchestra over three full seasons, and includes concertos, as well as a variety of chamber music programs. Working through a broad repertoire over several seasons and with the same musician not only allows for a certain freedom from the impulse of “playing it safe”, but also creates opportunities for discovery and for showcasing the full spectrum of an artist’s aptitude – an opportunity particularly beneficial to emerging artists. At the same time, this approach brings the artist closer to the audience.
“The usual situation is that you have very short notice to prepare for your debut,” says Barnatan, “and by the time you could be invited back – which usually can’t be planned earlier than three years in advance due to advanced scheduling arrangements – the audience has all but forgotten you.”
Particularly in the realm of contemporary music, Gilbert’s commitment to building long-term perspectives rather than indulging in the novelty aspect of a soloist is well known and appreciated.
“The New York Philharmonic does not just do contemporary music – they do a whole Biennale,” says Barnatan.
Being the first emerging artist featured during several, consecutive seasons at the New York Philharmonic has certainly not hurt Barnatan’s career, but his talent and personality have made him many friends within the New York music community long before this extraordinary honor.
I’ve played a lot in New York lately,” he says. “Remarkably, despite New York being known as such a ‘dog eats dog’ place, I found much support here early on. In my experience, if someone here likes you, they will do everything they possibly can for you to succeed.”
Barnatan’s New York road to success has recently been further paved by being awarded one of the prestigious Martin E. Segal Awards for the year 2015.
Apart from John Gerlach, director of the Rockefeller Concert Series, who invited him for his first performance in New York, Barnatan names Hanna Arie-Gaifman, music director at the 92Y, as one of his early and most important advocates.
Since 2009, he has been performing regularly at the 92Y’s concert series, participating with members of the Cleveland Orchestra in a Janáček – Kundera celebration, and also joining the Tokyo String Quartet in its three-year cycle of Beethoven’s string quartets.
In December 2012, Barnatan’s solo recital with works by Debussy, Adès, Britten, and Ravel formed the backbone of his CD, “Darkness Visible”, an album that made the “Best of the Year” list of The New York Times.
A 2013 release of Schubert’s late Sonata in C minor, D.958 and A major, D.959 (including his affectionate Impromptu in G flat D.899, No. 3) on the Avie label followed, attracting Gramophone’s praise for his “sensitivity, poise, and focus”; the music magazine called Barnatan a “born Schubertian.”
Barnatan’s 2006 recording on the Bridge label, “Schubert Recital”, which included Schubert’s second set of Impromptus (D.935), already expressed the pianist’s affinity for Schubert’s work early on in his career, and so it came as no surprise when three years later, after his time with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s group for young musicians (CMS Two), he co-curating the CMS “Schubert Project”, an exploration of Schubert’s late works. Following this, Barnatan participated in international performances with CMS.
“Inon is an absolute musician, engaging and interesting. He is already great and still growing, and he is a joy to work with,” says the 92Y’s Gaifman when asked about Barnatan.
Inon Barnatan at SubCulture
During the 2014 collaboration between the New York Philharmonic and the 92Y at the downtown music venue, SubCulture, Barnatan was featured in a solo program titled “Voices”, which allowed him to express himself through repertoire ranging from Bach to Liszt all the way to jazz.
Then, during the 92Y’s “Jerusalem Quartet and Friends” cycle, he played Brahms’ chamber music works as “resident pianist” with the revered quartet.
Jerusalem Quartet cellist Kyril Zlotnikov raves about working with Barnatan:
“The quartet’s first collaboration with Inon was at the London Royal Academy of Music, around 12 years ago. Since then it has been always a great pleasure for me to collaborate with Inon. He is very sensitive, delicate, flexible, and such a knowledgeable musician with great taste; and most importantly he knows how to listen, which is a quality I personally admire the most. It’s just a joy to make music together with Inon, and I hope we will have many more opportunities to play together.”
Barnatan likes to compare his playing and performing with the role-play of an actor: “As in an actor’s job, a musician’s job is to inhabit the role, but at the same time disappear behind it and figure out what the material is about, and how to bring that across,” he says.
And indeed, an actor’s nuanced and very detailed expressions create a unique palette that is not unsimilar to the pianist’s craft.
To achieve perfectly aligned coordination, the choreography of movement requires a controlled distribution of body weight. Only then can a pianist’s interpretation fully and uniquely express the emotional power and character of a composer’s specific sound. There is a reason why classical master works are performed and recorded countless times and by a multitude of pianists: no performance possesses the same interpretative detail as the other.
An unending quest to discover a musical work’s character, which rarely reveals itself in the score alone, is a prerequisite for any adequate interpretation.
Not unlike a film script, the score only serves as a point of departure; in the performance, it is up to the artist to provide direction by balancing dominant and secondary voices, but, unlike in film production, this has to be done in one ‘take’ – true mastery each time.
Naming some of the masters who helped him build his musical vision, Barnatan particularly mentions his mentor, Maria Curcio, herself the last pupil of the legendary Arthur Schnabel in Italy and of Nadia Boulanger in Paris. Curcio’s list of students reads like the ‘who is who’ of piano icons, and includes pianists such as Martha Argerich, Radu Lupu and Leon Fleisher.
“Originally the plan was for me to leave Israel for the US, where at age 17 I was auditioning for Juilliard, Curtis, and Peabody,” Barnatan remembers. “But after I had returned to Jerusalem, where I was supposed to play for Curcio, she had to cancel but invited me instead to visit her for a week in London, where she resided at the time. I was so taken with her that this week turned into my moving to London to study with this grand dame of the piano; she was just so incredible,” says Barnatan.
“She embodies that spirit of Schnabel, and although she did not have a career of her own as a performer, she fully represented that beautiful musicianship, a true marriage of sound and knowledge.”
Barnatan especially appreciated the great mentor’s capacity to technically achieve different types of sound, so precious in an artist’s palette. “She taught me how to use everything in my arsenal [while] still trying to make it sound like you are the first person playing that piece.”
In 2000, Barnatan met pianist and educator Leon Fleisher at the Ravinia Music Festival in Illinois. Coming out of the Schnabel/Curcio tradition, Leon Fleisher told him: “If you want a thousand different sounds, you need to play a thousand different ways.”
At Ravinia, Barnatan also worked with teachers such as Miriam Fried, Claude Frank, Menahem Pressler, and collaborated with young artists like Alisa Weilerstein. “Alisa and I had the same manager, who paired us up and planned our first live radio broadcast together, in 2008.”
Barnatan remembers his first performance with the vibrant cellist very vividly: “We did not really have much time to rehearse together, but it came so natural – we agreed about things in every respect and it was just a great chemistry between us. The broadcast took place at one of the major radio stations, and after we played, the interviewer remarked that our performance together was obviously the fruit of a longstanding collaboration, to which Alisa remarked without blinking: ‘Oh, about a year and a half’.”
“Ravinia opened my eyes,” says Barnatan. “It did so for many things, but especially for my developing understanding of chamber music.”
Four years after Ravinia 2000 and shortly before his Carnegie Hall debut, Barnatan played one of Schubert’s late sonatas for Fleisher’s master class at Carnegie Hall. In the audience was Ara Guzelimian, then Carnegie Hall’s senior director and artistic advisor. Ardent about Barnatan’s talent, he further assisted Barnatan by introducing the young pianist to cellist David Finckel, artistic director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, which in turn led to Barnatan’s engagement with CMS Two.
In 2007, Barnatan and violinist Liza Ferchtman released a duo-CD with works by Schubert and Beethoven on the Challenge Classics label. The musical chemistry between both performers has been praised as a “tour de force in ensemble playing.”
“We don’t do huge amounts of performances together; usually we plan on one tour per year in Europe and one in the United States, but when we get together it’s always easy, just like the first time,” says Barnatan.
They recently returned from Berlin, where they recorded sonatas by Chopin and Rachmaninoff for the Decca label at Teldex, to be released sometime this year. “This is difficult repertoire and could be tricky sometimes in collaboration, but because of our dynamic, it went like a breeze,” Barnatan says.
In an industry starved for iconic performers, both Barnatan’s and Weilerstein’s careers are flourishing; Weilerstein’s recording of Elgar and Elliott Carter’s cello concertos on the Decca label conducted by Daniel Barenboim, was named “BBC Album of the Year” in 2013.
Yet stepping into the realm of a successful international career has not always come easy for the thoughtful Israeli artist, who has made his home in Harlem. He struggles with the dilemma of the business aspects of an artist’s life versus the noble act of performing.
It might well be his understanding for the role of the actor, which will provide the young pianist with the necessary balance to navigate these disparate worlds.
And then he adds: “it’s a bit of a paradox: the career stuff is supposed to be all about you … but I do feel very strongly that as a musician it’s really not about you.”
It is this humble thoughtfulness that makes Inon Barnatan so likeable.