Inon Barnatan believes his greatest strength as a concert pianist is a pure enjoyment of performing.
The 42-year-old Israeli native, whom the New York Times describes as “one of the most admired pianists of his generation,” joins the Arizona Musicfest Festival Orchestra for a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 on Feb. 24 at 7:30 p.m.
In a phone interview, Barnatan said, “I really enjoy myself when I perform. I don’t think of it as a source of stress or anxiety. I am able to perform without concentrating too much on my own self or ego.”
Barnatan’s performance is one of 30 events in the festival’s 2021-2022 season. This season also marks a return to live indoor concerts in north Scottsdale.
Barnatan has established a unique and varied career, equally celebrated as a soloist, curator and collaborator. Now based in New York City, Barnatan served as the inaugural Artist-in-Association of the New York Philharmonic for three seasons beginning in 2014.
The recipient of the Avery Fisher Career Grant and Lincoln Center’s Martin E. Segal Award, Barnatan is also a sought-after recitalist and chamber musician. In 2019, he embarked on his first season as music director of La Jolla Music Society’s SummerFest in California. In the 2019-2020 season, he played solo recitals at Carnegie’s Zankel Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall and reunited for a European tour with his frequent recital partner, cellist Alisa Weilerstein.
The most important career advice he has received underlies his approach to performing. “That it’s not about you. You’re not that important. The more you try to insert yourself, the more you interfere as a performer. There’s no way that you won’t express yourself, but you shouldn’t try too hard. Let the music speak.”
During the pre-pandemic period of the 2019-2000 season, Barnatan played with the symphony orchestras of Minnesota, Dresden, Barcelona, Stockholm, Ottawa, Innsbruck, Tenerife and Los Angeles. He recreated Beethoven’s legendary 1808 concert with the Cincinnati Symphony and finished recording the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Alan Gilbert and the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields.
Barnatan studied at the Royal Academy of Music and he recalls his teachers as his greatest artistic influence. Among several instructors, he studied under Maria Curcio, who was a student of one of the most legendary pianists of the 20th century, Arthur Schnabel. He also remembers the influence of Leon Fleisher, an American pianist and conductor. “Those were kind of by far the most important influence and inspiration.”
He is passionate about delivering the music itself to audiences. “It’s the most expressive way a person can communicate, in some ways more powerful than words. As a performer I think of ourselves as actors — conduits between the music and the audience.
“You want people to love it as much as you do and you want to convince them that what it is that you are playing is the most important thing in that particular moment.”
Barnatan’s career didn’t pause with the pandemic. When public concerts stopped, Barnatan recorded concert films and streamed performances with numerous orchestras, including the Boston, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Detroit, New Jersey and San Diego symphony orchestras. He conducted Mozart and Beethoven concertos from the keyboard with the Seattle Symphony, performed the U.S. premiere of Matthias Pintscher’s piano concerto with the New World Symphony, and played numerous recitals and chamber music performances online.
His live performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the beginning of January “felt like a real triumph finally being able to play a concert live.”
Barnatan’s favorite performances in his career mark the beginnings of longstanding relationships. He names conductor Adam Gilbert and cellist Alisa Weilerstein among his best collaborators.
Barnatan began playing piano when he was three and a half years old in Tel Aviv. “My mother had a piano in the house and I apparently gravitated towards it very soon and started picking out tunes and telling her she was playing wrong notes.
“I don’t feel like it was ever a choice,” he said of his music career. “From a very young age, it’s just what I did and what I knew. There was never a question of it.” JN
For concert tickets and schedule, visit azmusicfest.org.
Ellen Braunstein is a freelance writer based in Chicago.