A 30-minute interview with the extremely talented pianist, curator, and musical collaborator Inon Barnatan was more revealing than I had anticipated.
Not only is Mr. Barnatan acclaimed for his very personal and mindful approach to interpreting and performing what’s been described by his peers in the classical music world as sensitive and hypnotic piano music, he insists on making known his deep appreciation for the teachers, musicians, composers, and mentors who have supported and inspired him throughout his career. What impressed me most about our conversation was his praise for those who opened his eyes and ears to music.
Mr. Barnatan, who was born in Tel Aviv in 1979, says that his parents were not professional musicians. “My mother, Meira, a self-taught piano player, played simply,” he said. But music was important to her, and Inon was inspired by her desire to learn, play, and practice waltzes and classical pieces. “At the age of 3, I was listening attentively to the lilting notes and chords she played and quickly tried to imitate her, playing by ear,” he said. “By 3 1/2, I was sent to my first lesson with a sweet lady who encouraged me by giving me chocolates.” After learning from a succession of good teachers, Inon Barnatan enrolled at the Israel Conservatory of Music in Tel Aviv when he was 9.
At 11, Inon began studying with “an illustrious teacher from Moscow,” Victor Derevianko. A distinguished professor of piano at Tel Aviv Academy, well known as a soloist and chamber musician around the world, he was trained by Heinrich Newhaus, the author of “The Art of Piano Playing.” Mr. Derevianko taught select students privately. “Neuhaus and Derevianko came from a rich tradition of Russian-born music, wonderful schools of piano and composition that I was fortunate to have passed down to me,” Mr. Barnatan said.
He moved to London in 1997 and studied with Maria Curcio, an Italian classical pianist and sought-after teacher, at the Royal Academy of Music. “Maria was the last pupil of famed Austrian-American classical pianist and composer Artur Schnabel — I was lucky to have been influenced by both German and Russian schools of composition and piano playing, particularly Beethoven,” he said.
In 2004, when he was 25, Mr. Barnatan had the opportunity to participate in an exploration of the sonatas of Franz Schubert, in a master class taught by Leon Fleisher.
Mr. Fleisher, like many of Mr. Barnatan’s teachers, challenged him to “transcend what happens at the keyboard and consider music from 30,000 feet above the piano, where the notes are just tips of icebergs.” Though the great mentors with whom he’d worked throughout his career have died, Mr. Barnatan regularly considers their unique approaches to music. “How you think about the musical material and relate it to the world can enhance your experience in extraordinary ways,” he said.
Mr. Barnatan became an American citizen after moving from London to Manhattan. Warmly welcomed in the United States, his manager, ICM Artists’ Patricia Winter, arranged a performance at Lincoln Center. “I was lucky to hit the ground running,” he said. “I always felt close to this country.”
As large as the United States is, it’s hard for Mr. Barnatan to go anywhere without meeting another Israeli musician. Composers like the Israeli-born Avner Dorman write music of intricate craftsmanship and rigorous technique. “I often have the opportunity to choose what I play and have commissioned work to play Israeli music,” Mr. Barnatan said.
Despite not having lived in Israel for almost 30 years, Mr. Barnatan remains deeply connected to his roots. “All my family are there,” he said. “Since Israel is a small country, and there aren’t many competing orchestras, everyone comes to my performances there — my parents, my family, even my kindergarten teacher!”
Mr. Barnatan’s mother, his first piano inspiration, found her passion in dance. After studying at the Martha Graham School of Dance in Manhattan, she began performing and then teaching — she taught until three years ago. “My mother travels to the United States to see me perform,” Mr. Barnatan said proudly. “I was thrilled when she joined me at the Boston Symphony a few years ago.”
As a known entity, Mr. Barnatan rarely has to audition. “Sometimes the conductor wants you, sometimes the orchestra wants you.” He considers his scheduled debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at NJPAC in Newark an opportunity of a lifetime. “They are without a doubt one of the most important and storied orchestras in the world, certainly in the United States,” he said enthusiastically. “It will be like playing at Carnegie Hall for the first time; the history and significance of it.” (And yes, he has played at Carnegie Hall.)
Mr. Barnatan still lives in Soho, so that’s another benefit to performing in Newark, he said. “It will be nice to play in my neck of the woods, so close to the city.”
Mr. Barnatan’s résumé is extraordinarily impressive. His technique and interpretation of music are masterful. His way of conversing feels genuine and natural. He is modest, generous, and kind.
Before our brief interview ended, I asked one more thing: “Can you give me one pearl of wisdom gleaned from one of your former teachers that enters your heart, mind, and spirit before a performance?” He is quiet as he ponders my question. “There were many,” he said. But the one that came to mind was from Maria Curcio, his teacher in London. “Sometimes you have to work against your instincts — relax when it gets big, fast or loud — engage when it’s soft, slow or delicate.
“Easy is hard; hard should feel easy.”
Inon Barnatan will join conductor Osmo Vänskä and the Philadelphia Orchestra for Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 24 at NJPAC on Friday, April 21, at 7:30 p.m. Learn more at njpac.org.