La Jolla Music Society Summerfest’s New Music Director: Inan Barnatan

by Pat Launer June 28, 2019


dg5_0685“A musician is like an actor.” That’s one of many thought-provoking ideas espoused by Inon Barnatan, the Israeli-born, internationally-renowned pianist who’s taking the helm as new music director of the La Jolla Music Society’s 34th annual SummerFest.

A nationally recognized classical music festival, SummerFest offers world-class classical concerts, uniting a stellar roster of resident soloists, composers, ensembles and artistic fellows every year during the month of August. The Festival routinely attracts an extensive and diverse audience from Southern California and beyond.

“SummerFest has been one of my very favorite Festivals since the first time I attended. So it’s a huge honor to come back as Music Director,” Barnatan said from his home in New York, where he alights periodically, given his intense schedule of solo, orchestral and chamber music performances.

“I never applied or thought about directing it. When I was approached by the executive director, my first inclination was to say, ‘I have a full career as a pianist.’ But the more I thought about it, the more excited I got about the program and its potential. I started thinking about the role of a 21st century musician beyond playing, and I wanted to experiment. The idea that I could choose not only what was played, but who was playing, was appealing to me.”

Barnatan, 40, has been described as “one of the most admired pianists of his generation” (New York Times), a musician with “uncommon sensitivity” (The New Yorker), “a true poet of the keyboard, refined, searching, unfailingly communicative” (London’s Evening Standard). The Washington Post noted “the firecracker technique on display, [but] it was Barnatan’s intelligence, musicality and storytelling ability that most impressed.”

When I asked what makes his playing so distinctive, expressive and poetic, the actor analogy emerged.

“A performer, like an actor, is an interpreter,” Barnatan explained. “You have two options: you can be yourself, or try to disappear into a role.”

In the realm of actors, we agreed on Jack Nicholson as the former type and Meryl Streep as the latter. It became clear which type of ‘interpreter’ he is.

“I try to disappear into the role. If I’m playing something that requires poetry or lyricism or virtuosity, I try to become that role. My job, as I see it, is to deliver the message in the most convincing way possible. In general, those are the performers I relate to, but not always. I made a conscious choice. Others are incredible musicians with the opposite approach.

“Horowitz,” he said of perhaps the most famous pianist of the 20th century (1903-1989), “was always Horowitz. But he was still a great pianist. It’s not necessarily a value judgment. It’s a different style.”

Barnatan’s style can be summed up by this review in the Philadelphia Enquirer, which lauded his “breathtaking charisma that comes from gorgeously turned-out technique, a masterly sense of color, and an expressiveness that can question, weep or shout joy from the rooftops.”

He has won numerous international awards, and his CD, “Darkness Visible,” was named Best of 2012 by the New York Times. In 2014, he was appointed first Artist in Association at the New York Philharmonic.

A Pitch-Perfect Early Start

Barnatan was born in Tel Aviv. There was a piano in the house that his mother played occasionally, but his parents were not musicians.

“At three years old,” he reports, “I started
picking out tunes, and my parents realized I had perfect pitch. I’d tell my mother what the names of the notes were as she was play ing. It’s not a particularly useful skill for the piano. It’s like knowing your letters.”

Recognizing his gift, his parents enrolled him in a music school, where he remained for three years, then transferred to “regular school.” He later attended a high school for the arts.

He can’t even recall at what age he made his performance debut, “but it was in the single digits.” He went on to win multiple competitions, and by age 11, he had performed with the Orchestra of the Tel Aviv Conservatory.

“I don’t give a lot of emphasis or importance to age,” he says. “You either play well or you don’t. I’m much more interested in what you have to say.”

Bsarnatan’s childhood home was a secular household. His Polish great grandfather was religious, but subsequent generations did not carry on the traditions.The recordings played at home were classical. Neither of his two brothers have any musical ability, but his mother has been a dancer and an artist, so he counts that as possible family “musical proclivities.”
As a boy, Barnatan played only classical music, but expressed “interest in different types of music.” (This wide-ranging interest is reflected in his eclectic programming for
SummerFest 2019).

After high school, at age 17, he left for London, and studied for ten years at the Royal Academy of Music. Then he moved to New York, where he’d always wanted to be. He was invited to join the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, where he spent three years. This, he says, provided “a built-in network.”

His musical education connected him to some of the 20th century’s most illustrious pianists and teachers. He has performed with the world’s foremost orchestras, and worked with distinguished conductors such as Gustavo Dudamel, Michael Tilson Thomas, Pinchas Zuckerman and Rafael Payare, the new music director of the San Diego Symphony.

Payare’s wife, acclaimed cellist Alisa Weilerstein, is one of Barnatan’s most frequent recital partners; they have toured the U.S. and Europe together. Having seen her play (with her exciting, energetic husband conducting), I can say that she certainly subscribes to Barnatan’s emotionally-charged actor performance style. They will be playing at SummerFest this year, joined by their frequent collaborators, Armenian violinist Sergey Khachatryan and Scottish percussionist Colin Currie.

Summerfest 2019

Over his career, Barnatan has commissioned and performed works by many contemporary composers. The old and the new, looking back and ahead, is the cornerstone of his first year directing and curating SummerFest.

The overarching theme is Transformation, an attempt to answer some of the following questions: How do composers build on what came before them? How does one artform interact with and change another? How does transforming a physical space affect how we experience music?

By honoring great compositional masters and experimenting with cross-collaborative performances and immersive experiences, Barnatan wants to create new ways for listeners to enjoy and appreciate chamber music.

This year’s SummerFest will be held in the stunning new home of the La Jolla Music Society, the $82 million Conrad Prebys Center for the Performing Arts, named for its major donor, the late local philanthropist.

Barnatan thinks “the hall is fantastic.” I was lucky enough to experience the facility on opening night in early April, and to witness Barnatan’s virtuosic, rapid-fire performance of the last movement of Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 2. His playing reflected what the Chicago Tribune had once written about him: “His fingers were like perfectly-timed pistons as he attacked coiled-spring rhythms.”

Barnatan has always been passionate about artistic cross-pollination. One of his SummerFest innovations is the “Synergy Series,” co-produced with Clara Wu Tsai, which explores connections between chamber music and jazz, visual arts and dance.

He performs in all three parts of the Synergy Series.

In Series I, “Intersection,” he plays with award-winning jazz vocalist Cecile McLorin Salvant and virtuoso jazz pianist Aaron Diehl (August 7).

Synergy Series II, “Music at an Exhibition,” finds Barnatan collaborating with polymath visual artist Doug Fitch (August 15).

Synergy Series III, called “In Step,” features a new work created by eminent choreographer Mark Morris, set on his Mark Morris Dance Group to the music of Handel (August 21-22). Morris himself is a talented musician, says Barnatan, and “he’s one of the leaders in working with live musicians.”

Barnatan chose Pulitzer Prize winner David Lang, “one of the busiest American composers, and the most performed living composer,” to be this year’s SummerFest composer-in-residence, and to curate “Takeover @ The JAI: Music from Music,” a two-part series focused on work by living composers (August 11 and 18).

“He has worked with all the major orchestras,” says Barnatan. “He chose composers both young and established.”

Those concerts will be in The Conrad’s smaller, flexible multi-purpose space, named for Joan and Irwin Jacobs (JAI). Between performances, Festival-goers can relax and schmooze in The Conrad’s Wu Tsai garden courtyard.

There will be three all-Beethoven concerts, performed by three different quartets, as the first of a two-season series of the complete Beethoven string quartets (August 9, 10, 16).

The “Inventions” presentation includes the West coast premiere and La Jolla Music Society co-commission of “Seven Signals” by Australian Brett Dean (August 14).
Barnatan is thrilled with the variety of music in the Festival, which showcases work ranging from Bach to Purcell, Dvorak to Ravel, Debussy to Caroline Shaw.

“I’m particularly excited about having the chance to explore a single theme over the course of the Festival. Artistic transformation sometimes comes about suddenly, through violent revolutions that force artists to create radical new ideas from the ashes. But it can also come about more organically, through evolution. Here in La Jolla, surrounded by musical family and natural beauty, we are in the perfect position to celebrate the peaceful evolutionary process, by which new artist ideas are achieved by building and expanding on older ones. I hope that each concert can be experienced as something of a journey.

“There’s really nothing in the program I’m not excited about,” he continued. “There’s not one performance I’d want to miss myself.”

In addition to post-performance talks and musician round-table discussions, the public is invited to certain rehearsals. Amazingly (if you’re not a professional musician, I suppose), the performers only arrive in La Jolla a few days before the Festival begins.

Barnatan takes it all in stride. He considers that he lives “a very normal life,” although he spends 50% of his time on the road (“when you keep confusing your body, it stops caring”). He comes to La Jolla directly from another Festival in Aspen.

His appointment as Music Director of SummerFest is just for one year.

“We’re taking it one year at a time,” he says. “It’s new for them and new for me. But if you’re a responsible curator, you’re already starting to plan for 2020.”

The La Jolla Music Society’s 34th SummerFest, with Inon Barnatan as new music director, runs August 2-23.


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