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An Interview With Inon Barnatan

June 17, 2009

At 30, Inon Barnatan has established an international reputation as a pianist of uncommon depth and maturity. The Tel Aviv-born, New York-based artist, who studied with Leon Fleisher and the late Maria Curcio, has earned acclaim in a variety of repertoire from Beethoven to Messiaen to Schubert. In 2007, the latter composer inspired Barnatan to assemble a group of like-minded (and similarly youthful) colleagues for “The Schubert Project,” a series showcasing late-life Schubert solo, chamber, and lieder works. The project has had performances in Amsterdam, Mexico City, and Washington D.C., featuring Barnatan and fellow pianist Jonathan Biss, cellist Alisa Weilerstein, and baritone Randall Scarlata, among others. New York ’s Lincoln Center will host the project in November.

Earlier this year, Barnatan was one of five artists awarded the 2009 Avery Fisher Career Grant; this summer, he makes his Cleveland Orchestra debut and performs in Paris, Quebec, Aspen, Vail, and Santa Fe. On July 2, he’ll join the San Francisco Symphony under James Gaffigan in Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1. He spoke to SFCV about Tchaikovsky, the Schubert Project, his commitment to involving young people in classical music, and how he stays healthy while maintaining a heavy schedule of rehearsing, recording, and concertizing.

You’re coming to San Francisco to play the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Is this a favorite piece for you?

It’s one of those concertos that you grow up with. It’s a staple. When you’re young, it’s what you think of as a concerto, because it’s the Romantic piano concerto. It’s a great piece. You very much feel that you’re a pianist when you’re playing it. There are concertos where you feel like an orchestra, or several different instruments, or if you’re playing a Brahms concerto you can feel like part of the orchestra. If you’re playing a Mozart concerto you can feel like you’re a singer. But with the Tchaikovsky concerto you feel like a pianist, no question about it.

This is such a well-known and loved piece. How do you approach a work that is so much in the public’s consciousness?

I try to relieve myself from all the things that I’ve heard before. Strangely enough, even though it’s such a well-known piece and incredibly popular, I don’t recall the last time I heard it in concert. Because it’s so popular, I think some orchestras shy away from it. So it’s actually been some time since I’ve heard it, and I try to approach it with a clean slate, really look at it as if for the first time. This is what one tries to do with every piece, of course, but this one is a specific challenge.

In a way, I’ve found that I like the piece so much more when I’m playing it than I did before. It really grew on me. It’s just so much fun to play. I think that happens with a lot of things: the more intimately you know them, the more you like them. It’s like getting to know a famous person: you find out things about them that are not immediately apparent. But of course there’s always the pressure of everybody knowing every single note of it. That’s just something you have to forget.

You’ve also been working on the Schubert Project, which sounds very interesting. What does it entail, and how did it begin?

It emerged very organically from what I was playing at the time. I was recording a CD of late Schubert works, and I noticed how many of the pieces I loved were all written in a single year, the last year of his life. It struck me how a person who’s basically my age — he was 31 — could in a single year write pieces, every single one of which became the masterpiece of its genre. I was also fascinated by the idea of the final year of somebody’s life, and how there’s a certain undertow, a certain knowledge of their own demise, perhaps, or something that seems to creep up in these pieces in different ways. It’s amazing for a 31-year-old to have a late period, but that’s what we get with Schubert.

What have you learned about this music from doing it this way?

It’s hard to put into words. The learning is more in the playing itself. But it’s made me aware of all these subtones. It’s made me look at the music in a different way, listen to the music in a different way. I’ve always had a strong opinion about how different sections of the music world should be more integrated. We have a way of seeing musicians in boxes. We see a pianist, and they’re either a soloist or a chamber musician or they play with an orchestra. It’s become kind of segregated. For me to be a good soloist, I feel that the experience of playing chamber music or playing with a singer is incredibly important. To be a good chamber musician, you have to be a good soloist.

That’s one of the things that this project does. In a single concert I’m playing a solo sonata, and a piece with a violinist, or a pianist and a singer, really exploring everything that the composer and the instruments can tell. It’s a very rewarding experience. And it’s been fun to do it with young artists. Most of them were friends of mine, or people I knew who were fantastic Schubert players, and when I asked them, not one person said no. They were all very enthusiastic about it, because they love Schubert so much.

Is there one piece in this project that means the most to you?

The B-flat piano sonata [D. 960] signifies so much of Schubert and that period for me. There’s a kind of sublime resignation in it. If you had to summarize Schubert’s last year in two words, that’s one of the ways you could do it. It’s incredibly rich and beautiful. I never stop learning in that piece.

What else do you have coming up this year?

This summer alone I’m playing 38 pieces. The week I’m playing at the San Francisco Symphony I’m starting in Paris, playing a recital with Alisa Weilerstein. We’re playing Brahms, Britten, de Falla, and Chopin. Then I’m in San Francisco, Aspen, Vail, Santa Fe — all different programs.

How old were you when you started your studies?

I was 3-1/2. I don’t remember, but I was told this. I started rather early. I wasn’t particularly disciplined for the first few years, but starting early and not being disciplined made sure that I still liked playing. I think so many children get turned off by the piano because of the strict discipline of it in the first few years. My progression could have been faster, but I think I gained a lot just by playing and getting to love playing, immersing myself and doing it for fun.

Did you play other instruments, as well?

No. I wish I did. I always wanted to play the cello, but there was never enough time.

Did you consider other careers, or did you always want to be a musician?

Not really. You know, the evolution of thinking of it as a career was much later. It was always clear to me that I was going to be playing music. It’s still strange for me to think of music as a profession or a job. But it was always clear to me that music was the only thing I wanted to do. I think as soon as you start thinking of the practicalities of it you can get very easily disheartened. When you think of the number of pianists and the chances that you’ll be able to sustain yourself in this profession, the chances are very slim. I believe that as soon as you have a Plan B, you’ll take it. If you’re not thinking of that, it’s actually much easier. I feel very fortunate that things have been going well, but my first concern was always doing what I love doing.

You received the Avery Fisher Career Grant this year. What does that mean for you, and how will it change your life?

I’m very honored and very happy, of course. How it will change my life, I’m not sure yet. It’s great to have the recognition, and the money, of course. It will enable me to do things that, in this economy, are not as easy, like recording projects, things that funding is getting scarcer for.

What is your life like away from touring, performing and recording? Do you have hobbies?

Do I have a life? [Laughs.] Yes, absolutely. I’m a big believer that in order to be a good musician you have to absorb as much from life as you can — first of all, other culture and arts. That’s incredibly important. But beyond that, to have a social life is very important to me. It’s also important to keep a healthy mind, which is sometimes more important than practicing. The psychological approach, for a musician, is almost half the job. You can practice for a very long time and be able to play a piece perfectly at home, and then it can all go to shambles in a concert because psychologically you’re not healthy. So to have a kind of semblance of normalcy in this crazy job is very important.

You also write, making blog entries on your Web site. Why is that important to you?

What’s important to me is to take down that wall between the audience and the performer. I think technology enables us for the first time, almost, to really do that in a good way. When I ask friends who don’t go to concerts why they don’t, a lot of the time it’s because they feel that they won’t know enough or they won’t connect with it. For them, it’s not a personal experience. By doing this, I’m trying to connect with the audience, for them to feel that it’s an experience they can engage in. That I can talk to them and they can talk to me.

What music are you listening to these days?

Only what I’m practicing. Actually, that’s not quite true. When I’m not immersed in what I’m practicing, these days I’m not listening to much classical music at all. There’s just so much that I’m playing and doing right now. But I listen to jazz. This evening I’m going to a performance by Gabe Kahane, Jeff Kahane’s son. It’s half classical, half not, at Rockwood Music Hall. He’s a friend. We have sort of a group of musicians here who are friends. I’ve felt this since I got to New York, there’s a closeness here. I don’t feel a sense of rivalry, everyone’s very supportive. So I try to get away from classical music when I have a chance. I think it’s healthy.

Georgia Rowe has been a Bay Area arts writer since 1986. She is Opera News’ chief San Francisco correspondent, and a frequent contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice, Musical America, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and San Francisco Examiner. Her work has also appeared in Gramophone, San Francisco Magazine, and Songlines.