On the Road with Inon Barnatan

Monday, July 20, 2009 ·

Writing from Colorado before traveling to perform Rhapsody in Blue at the Blossom Festival on July 25, pianist Inon Barnatan talks about Gershwin’s score, 1920s jazz, what’s on his iPod, and more.

On performing the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue:

The Cleveland Orchestra approached me and asked if I would play the original jazz band version (arranged for orchestra by Ferde Grofé). Even thought it wasn't my idea, I was still thrilled. I am a big fan of the jazz band version. It has a jazzy sound and texture that fits the piece so well, and it helps to get me (and hopefully the listener) into that ’20s jazzy vibe. This is the first time I am performing the piece in this version, and I can't wait!

On Rhapsody in Blue and the 1920s:

Rhapsody in Blue is one of those rare pieces that enters your ears even before you are aware it has. I have no idea when I first heard it; it seems almost like I always knew it.. This is the fate of the truly ubiquitous tune -- it becomes part of the public consciousness. Of course a piece that famous runs the risk of becoming too known. It’s difficult to approach a piece with fresh ears when you've heard it so many times.

That said, playing the piece is a very different kettle of fish. Every time I play the piece I feel transported to 1920's New York (though the piece was conceived on a train to Boston) and being both a fan of the ’20s and a resident of New York, I have no trouble connecting to it. And of course, this piece is so much fun to play. I have always harbored a secret jealousy of jazz pianists. Since I love jazz, this is as close as I get to it without actually trying to play jazz -- which I have never been able to do in a way that I felt was good enough.

On summer festivals:

I guess that summer festivals have something in common with holiday romances. They are mostly brief, intense, intoxicating, full of new experiences with unfamiliar people and they are mostly unpredictable. They are also often set in exotic, beautiful locations, and before you have a chance to really enjoy them, you have to catch a flight!

This summer is a very fun one, but also one of the busiest I have ever had. I started my festival season on the first of July in the St. Denis festival in Paris. A day later I flew to San Francisco for two performances of the Tchaikovsky concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, a day later I played a recital with cellist Alisa Weilerstein in Montreal, and then spent six days at the Aspen Music Festival playing three different programs and am currently in Vail, Colorado for the Chamber Music Festival. From here I will go directly to Cleveland, then from Blossom it’s on to the Santa Fe, Rockport (Maine), and Bridgehampton festivals.

I admit that this is a little crazy, but I am so privileged to be able to go to all these wonderful places and play so much wonderful music with so many great musicians that I can't possibly complain. It’s especially hard at this moment, as I am sitting at the computer with the mountains in front of me.

On the power of the shuffle button:

I have a very large and varied collection of music, so the shuffle button could easily take me in very different directions. For example, in the car yesterday my iPod took me from a late Beethoven quartet through Radiohead, Bobby Darin, Thelonious Monk, Schubert, and Nina Simone, if I remember correctly. By the way, I agree with Alex Ross from The New Yorker that the shuffle function is one that should, and does, change the way we hear music. It’s good to remember sometimes that good music is good music regardless of genre, and should sometimes be heard in an unexpected context. For that reason I like going to the Tate Gallery in London, where the art is not arranged by date, but by association.

In my free time time around concerts I try to experience the place that I am in. I dislike going to interesting places and only seeing the inside of a hotel room or a concert hall. For example, when I was in Aspen last week I took a day off and went hiking in Maroon Bells, which made the trip so much richer and more interesting. Food is another important way to experience a place, and being a foodie I rarely miss a chance to experience a local haunt. Oh, and local wine/beer. Sometimes I would remember places not by the concert I played or the people I met, but by where/what I ate or drank. Bit of a hedonist, I guess.

On his family:

One of the first questions people often ask me is if I come from a family of musicians. The answer is no; there are no musicians in my family. That does not mean, however, that I did not inherit a love for music. My parents (my mother especially, who was a contemporary ballet dancer and now teaches it) have always loved music and filled the house with it. There was an upright piano in the house, and that is how I came to play. Picking out tunes on the piano was apparently a major pastime for me when I was three years old.

See Inon Barnatan on YouTube, or visit his audio page.


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