Soloists such as Van Cliburn and, more recently, Lang Lang, made their mark on the world’s stage at a relatively young age. But such careers often hit a plateau or, worse, suffer burnout. Other artists, like the 35-year-old Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan, grow more gradually. Happily, Barnatan’s music-making — both in concert and on disc — continues to deepen, delight and enrich.
Last season, the pianist’s tour stop at Soka Performing Arts Center with the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields impressed Orange County Register music critic Timothy Mangan, who observed that the pianist played Bach’s Concerto in D minor with “compelling ebullience, like a jazz musician jamming with friends.”
On Aug. 21, Barnatan joins conductor Nicholas McGegan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic for his debut as a soloist with orchestra at the Hollywood Bowl in one of Mozart’s longest concertos, the charming and poetic Piano Concerto No. 22 in E flat (K. 482).
“This concerto is one of Mozart’s greatest,” Barnatan said recently from his home in New York, “especially the dark and heartbreaking slow movement. Following the 1785 premiere, Mozart wrote to his father with great pride how the audience clapped so hard after the slow movement that they had to repeat it.”
Barnatan, who will be performing his own cadenzas (Mozart never provided them), chose this score for his U.S. concerto debut in 2007 with the Houston Symphony. Since then, Barnatan’s career has taken off on both coasts. He was recently appointed the New York Philharmonic’s first “artist-in-association,” a three-season post that begins next spring.
Born in Tel Aviv, Barnatan left Israel at 17 and entered the Royal Academy of Music in London. He moved to New York in 2006, where he studied with pianist Leon Fleisher, whose meteoric concert career, interrupted by a serious hand injury, turned into an illustrious career as teacher and mentor.
“Fleisher tried to make you take clues on the page and think about, say, the rhythmic and emotional structure of a piece,” Barnatan said. “The actual notes we hear are just the tip of the iceberg. It’s about what you can’t hear. Every note exists for a reason you have to discover.”
Barnatan, who seemingly would rather play music than speak about it, quoted the aphorism, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” Still, he is an eloquent spokesman for his art.
“It’s like an actor giving an inflection to certain words,” the pianist added. “It’s about understanding what’s behind and beneath.”
Cellist Alisa Weilerstein said she and Barnatan share an instinctive approach to the score at hand. They plan to record a duo recital for Decca later this year.
“We prefer not to talk too much in rehearsal,” Weilerstein said. “We’ll try playing something different ways, but we don’t have to talk to convey an idea.”
Playing chamber music is clearly one of Barnatan’s passions. “When you work with a soloist, singer or orchestra, you can’t just say your piece,” Barnatan said. “You have to listen and adjust your thinking.”
Barnatan’s family still lives in Tel Aviv, and he said he wished such a humane collaborative process would function more often there. “I wish people would listen to each other,” he said. “Very few people know the intricacies of what’s happening in Israel. People block their ears while they speak. They don’t try to understand the other person’s narrative.”
A self-described “citizen of the world,” Barnatan said he loves returning to Israel, but added, “It’s an intense place to live, which can be great, of course. As an Israeli, you grow up with that intensity. There’s always a sense something will happen. You deal with the situation and make the most of it.”
Barnatan has maintained his New York base since 2006. The same year marked the release of his debut solo recital, a gripping all-Schubert CD on Bridge Records. The disc included a turbulent, searching account of Schubert’s great B-flat Sonata (D. 960), the kind of performance that announced a major artist in the making. His latest record on Avie, of Schubert’s Sonatas in C minor (D. 958) and A major (D. 959), confirms Barnatan’s stature as one of the most sensitive and imaginative Schubert interpreters of his generation.
But staying close to the contemporary music scene is also important to the pianist. In recent years, he has commissioned works from composers Avner Dorman, Matthias Pintscher and Sebastian Currier. Indeed, “Darknesse Visible,” his second solo recording, proves Barnatan is as luminous, stylistically flexible and impassioned an interpreter of works from Debussy and Ravel to Thomas Adès.
Barnatan said he likes to present old and new music together. “The juxtaposition helps both, because nothing exists in a vacuum,” he said. “A 300-year-old score can sound like it was written yesterday. I still spend every day immersed in pieces hundreds of years old. I don’t think we’re ever finished, and that’s the beauty of what we do.”
Pianist Inon Barnatan will perform an all-Mozart program with Nicholas McGegan conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Aug. 21. For ticket information, visit this story at jewishjournal.com.