Within three years of moving to the United States from London, the Israeli-born pianist Inon Barnatan in 2009 received an Avery Fisher Career Grant — a prestigious award for someone who had only lived stateside for a few years. But it’s not surprising. He’s an uncommonly gifted pianist who has performed and worked with performers including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony to his mentor, Leon Fleisher, one of the most acclaimed pianists of the 20th century. Barnatan will perform Tchaikovsky’s Concerto for Piano No. 1 in B flat minor, Op. 23 with the Bangor Symphony Orchestra at 3 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 24, at the Collins Center for the Arts on the University of Maine campus. Earlier this week, Barnatan responded to a few questions from the Bangor Daily News while he was at home in New York, readying for this weekend’s concert.
Tell us a little bit about your background. Do you have a musical family? At what point did you know that you’d be living a musical life?
I was born in Israel, and since I can remember, I’ve been playing music. There was an upright piano in the house, and even though my parents were not musicians, I always gravitated towards it. I started picking out tunes with my mother, and she would do the same, and I’d correct her. They realized I had perfect pitch, so they sent me to lessons, and that was it. It was never a conscious decision for me, it was just what I did. I was always going to be a musician.
You’re playing Tchaikovsky this weekend with the BSO, but you released an album of Schubert sonatas just this year. What drew you to Schubert, and to these late sonatas in particular?
Schubert has been a fascination of mine for a long time. I was part of an event in 2004 that explored the last four sonatas, and Leon Fleisher was one of my teachers. He had a big effect on me in many ways, but that in particular made me start to explore it more deeply. I devised a project around them last year for both solo, chamber and vocal settings. I immersed myself in that period. There are very few recitals of mine that don’t have some Schubert. I think he and Tchaikovsky share a certain poetry and singing quality. I think we tend to think of Tchaikovsky as these big crashing chords and octaves, but there are so many beautiful, intimate moments in the concerto I’m playing in particular.
You’ve worked with a number of wonderful conductors and performers. With whom have you particularly enjoyed working, and with whom would you most like to work in the future?
It would be difficult for me to say! I’ve been very lucky. Leon Fleisher, of course, comes to mind, not just because we’ve performed together but because he’s had such a deep influence on the way I make music. It’s been great to work with some of the great orchestras. One of the most enjoyable musical experiences I’ve ever had has been with the [English chamber orchestra] Academy of St. Martin in the Fields. I toured with them as a soloist and as a conductor. That was wonderful.
You’re no stranger to Maine — you’ve performed at the Bay Chamber Concert Series, and you’ve performed in Orono before. Can you share some fond memories of the state?
I love Maine, and I’ll be sorry to miss the fall colors. That’s a memory I remember very fondly — the first time I came to Maine was in the fall, and it was magical. I love the beauty, the food, the people. I look forward to coming back. I’ve arranged my trip so I have a day on either side of my performance, in fact.