Rising international piano star Inon Barnatan, who is appearing at Spoleto for the first time this year, sat down with me for a laid-back interview at the Dock Street Theatre after Friday afternoon’s chamber program. In the course of our warm and wide-ranging conversation, he spoke of his background, current activities, and impressions of Charleston.
LK: Your work here with cellist Alisa Weilerstein has been particularly impressive. You two are a musical match made in heaven, and I understand you’ve been performing with her for some time now. I imagine she had a good deal to do with your coming to Spoleto.
IB: Yes and no. I’ve been performing with Alisa for several years now with the Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society. Not only are we very happy to be musical collaborators, but we've become very close friends, too. She’s often spoken of Spoleto, and has told me how much I’d enjoy working here. But it wasn’t until I played last year with Geoff (Nuttall) and Livia (Sohn) that the invitation came, and I jumped at it.
LK: Your new Charleston fans are glad you did. Please tell us where you’re from, and something about your early musical background and influences.
IB: I’m a native of Tel Aviv, Israel. When I was three and a half, I began correcting my mom’s piano playing, rather obnoxiously, she tells me. But even though I knew nothing of music then, I was usually right, and so my parents had me tested, and it turned out I had perfect pitch. And so began the piano lessons. I had some wonderful early teachers, but things got serious when I switched at age 14 to Victor Derevianko at the national music academy. Derevianko himself had studied with the great Russian master Heinrich Neuhaus.
LK: So you’re the “musical grandson” of Neuhaus, who produced piano masters like Sviatoslav Richter and Emil Gilels?
IB: I guess you could say that, in which case I’m also the musical grandson of the great Arthur Schnabel, who taught my next teacher, Maria Curcio. I left Tel Aviv to study with her in London when I was 18. Another of my major teachers was Leon Fleisher.
LK: I’ve read that you’ve done some remarkable things with the music of Franz Schubert, including a recording and another project. Please tell me about them. BTW, is Schubert your favorite composer?
IB: Well, Schubert is definitely one of my favorites, but at any given time, my fave is usually the composer I happen to be working on or playing. Like right now, it’s Rachmaninoff (big grin), after just playing his cello sonata with Alisa. My Schubert recording includes the second group of four impromptus (D. 935) and the B-flat Sonata. I also curated “Schubert Ascending” at Lincoln Center: a recent three-concert project where I joined a bunch of marvelous artists to explore the miraculous music of Schubert’s final year. We did works like the great C Major String Quintet, some late piano sonatas and his Swan Song Lieder cycle.
LK: Do you see yourself as mainly a solo artist, or as a chamber player? And what concertos do you favor?
IB: To be a good chamber player, you’ve got to be a good soloist, and vice versa. I suppose I’m a bit more of a soloist these days, but still, I couldn’t live without chamber music. Concertos? Well, I’m doing a lot of Mozart these days, lately with the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields orchestra in England. I’ve also been performing the Beethoven numbers 2, 3 and 5, and I’ve done Rachmaninoff’s Paganini Variations in New Orleans.
LK: What’s it like for you working in Charleston? Are you coping with all the heat and humidity? And do you plan on returning to future Spoletos?
IB: I’m having a wonderful time here, making good music with some of the finest artists I know. I’m enjoying the schedule, too: morning and afternoon rehearsals, with concerts in between, and that leaves the evenings free to enjoy the rest of the festival and get to know your beautiful city. The heat? Nah, I’m from Israel; I can handle it. And yes, I’d love to come back, if they invite me.