By Wynne Delacoma
When pianist Inon Barnatan returns to Ravinia on July 21, he’ll be there to extend the history of an institution. The festival has been hosting a high-spirited, evening-long celebration of Tchaikovsky every season for now 40 years. The Russian composer’s tuneful, dramatic ballets and symphonies are among the world’s most beloved classical pieces, and every year since the early ’80s, Ravinia’s “Tchaikovsky Spectacular” has ended with a rousing version of the 1812 Overture, complete with live cannons. This summer, for the first time, the ever-popular event occupies a full weekend, July 21–22, with concerts featuring the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and conductor Ken-David Masur. The Violin Concerto—with Miriam Fried, the venerable, 25-year lion of Ravinia’s Steans Music Institute, as soloist—is the centerpiece for July 22, the traditional Sunday concert, and Israeli-born Barnatan is joining the CSO as soloist in the First Piano Concerto.
The weekend’s two Tchaikovsky concertos are the very definition of “standard” classical repertoire. Audiences adore them, and gifted youngsters start playing them in their teens, if not earlier. Professional musicians can expect to perform them hundreds of times over a long career. Staving off boredom with a piece you’ve played for years might seem difficult. Not so, says Barnatan. “The piano concerto is a piece I never thought I would fall in love with as much as I did,” elaborates the pianist, who spent three summers in the early 2000s as a fellow at RSMI (under Fried’s leadership). Winner of a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant, Barnatan has a thriving international career, last year concluding a three-year appointment as the New York Philharmonic’s first Artist in Association. “You hear it so much, but as soon as I started playing it, I realized how different it was from the image I had in my head.”
“The image is this overblown, very bombastic piece,” Barnatan continues. “Actually, it’s really an elegant and beautiful and graceful piece. It has more in common with Swan Lake than the 1812 Overture.” (A comparison that can be confirmed in person, as the July 21 concert opens with excerpts from Swan Lake—one of Tchaikovsky’s three major ballet scores along with The Sleeping Beauty and The Nutcracker—and of course finishes with the explosive 1812.)
Barnatan discovered surprising aspects of the concerto during a deep-dive analysis of the score. “Sometimes people in our business forget to look at the score,” he says. “They go by how they’ve heard the piece before or a recording. I think that’s what happened. Somehow it took a wrong turn and was seen as a vehicle for pianists to show off. Over the years it became more extroverted, like a kind of compounding interest.”
Now 39, Barnatan admits to pounding the keyboard himself while learning the piece as a teenager in Israel. (He moved to the US in 2006 after several years of study at London’s Royal Academy of Music.) “I remember that I loved playing it,” he says, “partly because you very much feel like a pianist when you play this particular concerto. When you play a Mozart or a Beethoven concerto, you’re as much a vocalist or a string quartet player as a pianist. When you play the [first] Tchaikovsky concerto, you’re a pianist. Certainly there are moments, especially in the gorgeous second movement, when there’s a lot of vocal writing. But primarily it’s a very instrumentally driven piece; it’s very tactile and fun to play.”
As the years went by, however, Barnatan took a different approach. He remembered lessons with his Russian-born teachers in Israel who emphasized Tchaikovsky’s subtlety. “It was looking at the score,” reiterates Barnatan about his shift in focus. “Tchaikovsky writes so beautifully and so precisely. All the clues are there. The more I played it, the more I really started to relish the musical aspects of it, the less pianistic aspects. I really enjoy it more every time I play it now. It’s the opposite of what you’d think. Every time I play it I delight in it and find new ways to make it sparkle.”
It’s hard to believe, but the immensely popular First Piano Concerto had a very rocky rollout. In early 1875, a few days after finishing the score, Tchaikovsky played it for a few distinguished associates. They were ferociously critical, calling it “worthless and unplayable.” It fared better with audiences later that year, but Tchaikovsky revised the concerto during the next decade, and most orchestras perform his final version, from 1888. Barnatan has found inspiration, however, in the 1875 score. “In Tchaikovsky’s first version,” he says, “the famous crashing chords at the beginning were actually rolled gently and elegantly. Whether you do that or not, the idea is the same. This concerto is as much charming and lyrical as it is virtuosic and exciting.”
Lyricism attracted Barnatan to another composer, Franz Schubert, not always a favorite of pianists who revel in Tchaikovsky. “Schubert is one of my great loves,” he says. “One thing that really draws me to him is how much he can do with very little. He can imply a whole world of meaning and emotion and depth with so few notes and such simple means; so much said with so little. That’s such an incredible thing to deal with as a performer and a listener.”
The distinguished pianist and teacher Leon Fleisher, who worked with Barnatan at RSMI, helped him explore Schubert’s depths. “I first met Leon Fleisher at Ravinia,” says Barnatan, “and the Steans Institute was really my gateway to coming to the United States in the first place.”
Later, in 2004, Barnatan was one of four young pianists participating in a two-week workshop on Schubert’s final four piano sonatas with Fleisher at Carnegie Hall. (Yuja Wang, also an RSMI alum, who appears at Ravinia July 18 with the CSO and Gustavo Dudamel, was among the four.) Barnatan worked with Fleisher on Schubert’s final, B-flat-major sonata and calls it “one of the most special musical experiences I ever had or, I think, ever will have.” At the concert closing the workshop, the New Yorker’s Alex Ross described Barnatan as “the most naturally poetic of the four pianists; he has an instinctive understanding of Schubert’s fragile, deep world.”
Typically, says Barnatan, master teachers like Fleisher listen to a student play a piece once or twice. They impart their wisdom, and everybody moves on to something else. At Carnegie, each of the pianists spent two weeks intensively studying their assigned Schubert sonata. “It was one of the most revelatory musical experiences of my life,” says Barnatan. “I went on to record the piece and, in some ways, it started my obsession with Schubert, to realize the infinite depth of this music. But also I think about some of the things Leon Fleisher said to me both then and thereafter every day.
“He didn’t necessarily speak about how to play a specific thing. It was mostly about how to deal with this or that type of material. When one thing happens, what does it mean? It’s about deciphering the clues in the score. He used to say, ‘The notes on the page are the tips of an iceberg. Their placement and shape are determined by what you can’t see under the water.’ Isn’t that beautiful? It’s an idea you can apply to any piece of music.”
Barnatan applies that idea to works by contemporary composers as well as such old masters as Tchaikovsky and Schubert. The pianist has given several world premieres, and contemporary music is a regular part of his repertoire. “I like good music,” he states simply. “It doesn’t really matter to me when it’s written. I don’t have a specific agenda. If there’s a piece that excites me, I want to play it.
“One of the things I enjoy doing, as a programmer, is putting things in context. We can listen to music with new ears. If you put old music next to new music, both of them sound different. It’s not just about [contrasting] new and old music, but certainly contemporary music helps us shake out the cobwebs. It makes us realize that all music was new at some point.”
Barnatan’s programming skills will be on view next summer when he becomes music director of the three-week La Jolla SummerFest in Southern California. In recent years, he performed with the festival’s orchestra and gave a few recitals during the organization’s non-summer season. When the offer arose, he initially worried about finding time to do the job. “But the more I thought about it, the more excited I got,” says Barnatan. “To be a 21st-century musician, you can’t just go onstage and play. It involves many more things. Programming is one of them, and getting out of your comfort zone, getting to know a lot of different music. It was fascinating to me to explore a bigger canvas for programming.”
His mother was a dancer, and Barnatan is collaborating with choreographer Mark Morris a new project focused on Schubert. Barnatan enjoys working with other artists, and multi-arts collaboration may figure in his plans for La Jolla. He also might organize festivals around a theme. But he’s still formulating his ideas. “Watch this space,” he says with a laugh. “I’m very busy, but [planning for La Jolla] tends to occupy my brain a lot. I’m listening to a lot of music, thinking, researching. It really gives me something to do on planes.” ▪
Wynne Delacoma was classical music critic for the Chicago Sun-Times from 1991 to 2006 and has been an adjunct journalism faculty member at Northwestern University. She is a freelance music critic, writer, and lecturer.