Inon Barnatan. Photo by Marco Borggreve/inonbarnatan.com

Israeli pianist takes atypical path to prominence


All soloists look for the big break that takes their careers to the next level. That lucky break occurred for Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan three years ago when he was appointed the first Artist-in-Association with the New York Philharmonic.

For Barnatan, the post came as a surprise. No wonder: Although he received an Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009, he claimed no career-making competition wins and was never promoted as a wunderkind the way, say, Evgeny Kissin was. Since more than one conservatory director has put the success figure for soloists at less than 1 percent, Barnatan is one of the few musicians to make a living as a concert pianist.

“For the longest time, I really didn’t think about it being a living,” Barnatan, 38, said from New York. “It was something I always did and always wanted to do, but being able to live off it was a happy coincidence.”

Now the pianist has embarked on a 12-city U.S. tour with London’s Academy of St. Martin in the Fields (ASMF), his third tour with the acclaimed chamber orchestra, stopping at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica on March 31 and at the Soka Performing Arts Center in Aliso Viejo the following night. In a program that includes works by Mozart and Copland, Barnatan also is giving the U.S. premiere of Scottish composer Alasdair Nicolson’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (“The Haunted Ebb”).

Barnatan will lead the usually conductor-less ASMF from the keyboard in two pieces: Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 in E flat major (K. 271), and Nicolson’s concerto for piano, trumpet and strings. Barnatan commissioned the Nicolson piece for the ASMF and the ensemble’s principal trumpet, Mark David, who also will be featured in Aaron Copland’s hauntingly nostalgic “Quiet City.”

The concert closes with Mozart’s Symphony No. 29 in A major, (K. 201/186a).

“I love the idea of juxtaposing work of the 20th and 21st centuries with Mozart,” Barnatan said. “They always jolt each other and make us hear each in a different way.”

Barnatan, who recently gave the last subscription concert of his successful run as the New York Philharmonic’s Artist-in-Association, said the position, created by the orchestra’s outgoing music director, Alan Gilbert, accelerated the process of making him part of the city’s musical culture.

“Instead of just making my debut with the Philharmonic, I was given an opportunity to develop a relationship with the orchestra, the city and the audience,” Barnatan said. “Even when a debut goes well with an orchestra, it takes a long time before a relationship develops.”

Luck, as it happens, tends to favor the well-prepared. After leaving Tel Aviv when he was 17, Barnatan entered London’s Royal Academy of Music. He moved to New York in 2006, slowly establishing himself in the next six years with two stunning Schubert recordings on the Bridge and Avie labels. Both records confirmed him as one of the most imaginative and poetic Schubertians of his generation.

Writing in The New York Times in 2014, critic David Allen said Barnatan demonstrated “a sensitivity reminiscent of two other New York institutions, Emanuel Ax and Murray Perahia.”

Although Allen called the pianist an “Israeli-born New Yorker,” Barnatan said his thoughts are never far from Israel.

“There’s such a rich, varied and exciting cultural life in Israel,” Barnatan said. “I love going there. The audiences are so warm. I grew up listening to the Israel Philharmonic where all the great people came to play. It’s that special atmosphere one’s home always has.”

Barnatan’s latest project with the ASMF is as soloist in the ensemble’s first recorded cycle of Beethoven’s five piano concertos. “It surprised me, because they’re the most recorded orchestra in the world and this is their core repertory. But they’ve never released a full cycle.”

After he finishes his tour with the ensemble in April, Barnatan starts a joint U.S. tour with his regular chamber music partner, Alisa Weilerstein, a MacArthur “genius grant”-winning cellist.

“Alisa understands that the music is more important than ego,” Barnatan said. “It’s not about being a star.”

Barnatan said with an ideal chamber music partner, like Weilerstein, “you can bounce off each other and let it rip.” But two musicians working together takes an equal investment in both instruments. For a soloist, the process is somewhat more internal.

“Playing the piano is so much more about the ears than it is about the fingers, which is why so many pianists don’t sound the same,” Barnatan said. “You can play on different pianos but you try to get the piano to sound like what’s inside your head, what’s in your inner ear. That really determines what your interpretation will sound like.”

Barnatan’s career advice for young musicians is similarly internally driven.

“I didn’t follow any path you’d recognize as being similar to any other,” he said. “When I recorded the Schubert sonatas, I felt that’s what I needed to do. The same with everything I’ve done. I found you get a response when you do something you care about. You can’t really fake that.”

For tickets to Inon Barnatan and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica, go to: www.thebroadstage.com

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