Israeli-American pianist Inon Barnatan has seen his career take him all over the world, performing in its most famous concert halls. His repertoire includes everything from Beethoven to contemporary composers like Alan Fletcher, Thomas Adès and Nico Muhly, and he has released six records to date. Having made his BBC Proms debut in 2017, we were thrilled to have him appear at Southbank Centre in 2018 in his very first International Piano Series concert, where he performed music by Ravel and Mussorgsky.
Ahead of his performance, we spoke to Inon to find out more about his life and career (and his dog, Jasper).
Born in Tel Aviv in 1979, Inon Barnatan got his start playing piano at a very early age.
‘Neither of my parents are musicians but my mother played piano when she was young and there was an upright piano in the house,’ says Inon.
‘Apparently around the age of three, I started gravitating towards it and correcting my mother from the other room if she played a wrong note, or identifying a note or picking out tunes. They found out that I have perfect pitch because I kept on playing from ear, from what I heard. So, they sent me to my first lesson when I was probably about three-and-a-half.’
He first performed with an orchestra at the age of 11 and by 1997 he had moved to London, where he started studying with Maria Curcio at the Royal Academy of Music, along with Christopher Elton, who was head of the keyboard department (and had also been a student of Curcio’s).
‘I was planning to move to the States to study and then I met Maria Curcio,’ says Inon. ‘She was supposed to come to Israel for masterclasses and then she cancelled, but she invited me to come to London for a week and I fell in love with her teaching, with her musicianship. She was a great, great inspiration and I decided to move to London to study with her. So that’s how I ended up there – and I loved it.’
Although his 31 October concert is Inon’s International Piano Series debut, he is very familiar with the programme. ‘I lived in London for ten years and I was on a steady diet of Southbank Centre and Wigmore Hall, with the occasional Prom,’ he says.
‘It’s really very special for me to come back. I did my second Prom this year and I played Royal Festival Hall with the London Philharmonic Orchestra recently, and then Wigmore Hall I’ve been to regularly. So for me to also come and do this, to play in the International Piano Series, is very exciting – especially as I haven’t been to the new, improved Queen Elizabeth Hall yet.’
‘For me actually one of the great powers of going to a concert, now especially, is that there are very few occasions in our lives now when we’re only doing one thing, when we’re concentrating on one thing. Even when we listen to music at home it’s very rare that we sit down and listen and just stare at the speaker and listen,’ he says.
‘I find that there’s so much more relevance and importance now to the ritual of sitting together and concentrating on one thing and giving it your attention and being transformed by it, than ever. I feel like more and more I see people of the younger generation rebelling against this distracted culture where you’re never doing something for more than a few seconds at a time. They’re looking for those experiences that allow them to slow down and concentrate and actually be. And I think music is one of those great, great things that we connect to and that if we allow ourselves the time. Then when something significant happens on stage it’s a very powerful feeling.’
‘I think Meryl Streep playing her character in the Devil Wears Prada is very different to Meryl Streep who plays Margaret Thatcher who’s very different from the Meryl Streep that plays another character,’ says Inon. ‘Some musicians are not like that but I feel like I’m a very different pianist when I play Ravel than I am to when I play Beethoven or when I play Shostakovich.’
Inon has talked about how he tries to absorb as much local culture as he can when he’s on the road. But why?
‘Music doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I think if you look at the way that musicians were in the past there was so much cross pollination between music and other artforms and just life in general. And to me to be a musician is to absorb as much of the world around you – whatever informs you as a person informs your music making. I think there's nothing more important for a musician than curiosity,’ he says.
Inon recorded Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit and La valse on his 2012 record Darknesse Visible and then worked with videographer Tristan Cook to create incredible video art to go with the music.
‘I asked a friend of mine, Tristan Cook, who is a wonderful videographer, if we could create some little teasers, vignettes for these so that you get a sense, even if it’s not a literal sense, of the story behind the piece,’ Inon says.
‘In the case of La valse there’s a suspicion that Ravel was inspired Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, which is the story of guests who come to these lavish parties thrown by a prince while the people are dying from the red plague outside the walls of the castle. They’re dancing until they realise that one of the guests at the ball is death itself and they dance themselves into doom, which is basically the sonic story of La Valse and its dancing-at-the-edge-of-a-volcano feeling.
‘Tristan found this incredible material that gets agitated by sound and starts dancing, basically. With this, he recreated exactly the feeling that I was imagining, this kind of strange, macabre dance. It was just a perfect, in some ways unconventional, visualisation of a feeling of a piece, rather than a literal translation of it, which I think is what Ravel achieved in the music.’
Darknesse Visible garnered rave reviews, with Gramophone magazine lavishing praise on Inon’s playing, saying it was ‘beautifully voiced piano, very well recorded’ and the New York Times awarding it a place on its coveted Best of 2012 list.
Inon’s dog is a seven-year-old whippet called Jasper.
‘When we got him I was slightly concerned about his reaction to music and then I was slightly offended that he had absolutely no reaction to music. But then I grew to really, really appreciate the fact that I don’t have another critic in the house. He can sleep very soundly right under the piano even if I’m practising a great, modern loud piece,’ says Inon.
In fact, Inon says the only person Jasper ever reacted to was the soprano Renée Fleming, when she came over to rehearse. ‘I think it was because he hadn’t heard that sound before, that incredible voice – and then somehow he suddenly woke from his apathy.’
Inon Barnatan appears at Queen Elizabeth Hall on Wednesday 31 October.
Southbank Centre’s 2018/19 series includes 200 incredible classical concerts that look to the future of what music can be and who it is for. Discover some of the most exciting artists, conductors, orchestras and ensembles the world over with us.
Interview by Mark Parker