Interview: Inon Barnatan

We are delighted to announce that Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan has joined Askonas Holt for European management. An Avery Fisher Career Grant recipient in 2009, Inon has gained a reputation for innovative programming and broad repertoire, with his 2012 disc ‘Darknesse Visible’ named one of the best recordings of the year by the New York Times. He speaks to Helen Cocks at his home in New York.

You are just beginning your final season as the first Artist-in-Association appointed to the New York Philharmonic. Tell me about your experiences in this position.
For me it has meant a meaningful and long lasting relationship with one of the greatest orchestras in the world, almost feeling part of the family. This is also my home orchestra now that I live in the states, so perhaps it’s made me feel more of a New Yorker! Usually when you’ve made your debut with an orchestra it takes years of planning before you can come back, but this was a ‘just add water’ relationship which meant that I could play with the orchestra numerous times.

The idea of Artist-in-Association was to invest in a relationship with a musician the orchestra believed in, but who had not yet had their debut with the orchestra. I’ve gained such a lot and have been so honoured to be the first incumbent of the position – my final season will be bitter-sweet as it’s been a special time.

You’ve become particularly known for your interpretations of Schubert’s music, with recordings of his solo and chamber works and numerous performances gaining great acclaim. What is it about Schubert’s music which attracts you?
I fell in love with Schubert’s music as soon as I started playing it. It’s very special in that he says so much with so little. It’s very pure and honest, but there is this world of expression in every single note, as if each note has so many layers, so many implications. It is phenomenally beautiful music.

You’re obviously passionate about contemporary music too – you’ve become known for your innovative programming and interpretations of music by composers like George Crumb and Thomas Adès.
I love music from so many different areas.  I feel contemporary music sometimes gets pigeonholed into being separate from Beethoven and Bach but for me there’s just one continuous line – if music is great, it’s great, no matter what the period. I’m a real advocate of playing what I love hearing and I listen to such a wide variety of music!

I recently played a recital at the Lincoln Center for which I created a dance suite by bringing together movements from different composers, from Rameau to Thomas Adès. I also did something similar, again with Adès, in my recording ‘Darknesse Visible’, which brings together pieces inspired by literature on the theme of darkness and light. The interconnections between different periods and interest me a lot, I find that the pieces speak to each other in really interesting ways.

When did you first realise you wanted to make music your career? I know you started on the piano at the age of three when your mother realised you had perfect pitch!
That’s right! For me there was never a sudden realisation that I was a musician, a bolt out of the blue, it was just something I always knew. I never questioned that music was something I was going to do, although of course the idea of making it my profession came later. I feel so lucky that I get to do this as my living – it’s as natural to me as speaking.

You’ve got a busy period for concerts coming up – what are the highlights for the next few months?
The fall is a busy period, but a great one, with many wonderful orchestras and my debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which I am particularly excited for. The repertoire this fall is also quite diverse, but I’m focusing on the Beethoven concertos as I’m in the middle of recording all of them with the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and Alan Gilbert. It’s one of my favourite orchestras anywhere, and I’m so lucky to have a close relationship with them.

[Inon will make his debut with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchester on 20 & 21 October, in a concert also featuring Mikhail Petrenko and Michelle DeYoung]

Your partnership with the cellist Alisa Weilerstein has been especially fruitful, leading last year to a very well-received album of Rachmaninov & Chopin Sonatas. How did you start working together? 

Alisa and I were introduced by our manager and there was an immediate connection. Musical relationships can be so casual and transitory but there are certain musicians with whom I really enjoy having a more meaningful partnership.

Although both Alisa and I have busy solo careers we take the time to work as a duo because it’s incredibly rewarding. We feel we can really experiment onstage, really take advantage of what it means to have a close relationship.

How do you find recording in general, is it something you enjoy?
In common with most musicians I have a somewhat conflicted relationship with recording! In some ways it goes against my feeling that music is something that lives in the now, that evolves all the time. To put something down for perpetuity is quite daunting! On the other hand, I see it as a document of a performance, a freeze-frame rather than a monument.

And of course it depends on your collaborators, recording with wonderful musicians like the Academy of St Martin in the Fields or Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, can be intensely rewarding and inspiring.

What do you hope to gain from this new relationship with Askonas Holt?
As a student and a young professional I spent a long time living in London but for the last few years I have been concentrating on building things up in the USA.

Now I want to come back more often to the places in Europe in which I love to play. Europe is the bedrock of western music, some of the best orchestras and musicians in the world are in Europe and it’s somewhere I would like to be more and more. Askonas Holt is the best of the best and I know the relationship will let me do what I love to do in even more places!

Find out more about Inon and his upcoming engagements here

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