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Mussorgsky’s “Pictures,” with Rakitina and the BSO

Anna Rakitina sits on a step with a glass window behind her, reflecting trees. She's wearing black skinny jeans, a white shirt, and a black cardigan blazer. She has a light brown pixie and hazel eyes. She hold her baton in both hands to looks to the right of frame.
Julia Priven
Conductor Anna Rakitina

Saturday, September 2nd, 2023
8:00 PM

In an encore broadcast, BSO Assistant Conductor Anna Rakitina conducts the suite from Elena Langer’s Figaro Gets a Divorce and Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, and Inon Barnatan is the soloist in the crown-jewel of Rachmaninoff’s works, Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.

Anna Rakitina, conductor
Inon Barnatan, piano

Elena LANGER Figaro Gets a Divorce Suite
Sergei RACHMANINOFF Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini
Modest MUSSORGSKY Pictures at an Exhibition (orch. Ravel)

This concert was originally broadcast on November 26th, 2022 and is no longer available on demand.

In a conversation with CRB's Brian McCreath, pianist Inon Barnatan describes his love for Rachmaninoff's music, how the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini is unique among the composer's works for piano, and what he's learned as Music Director of the La Jolla SummerFest. To listen, use the player above, and read the transcript below.


Brian McCreath I'm Brian McCreath at Symphony Hall with Inon Barnatan, who is back with the BSO for the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, one of my favorite pieces by Rachmaninoff, and so, Inon, thanks a lot for your time today. I appreciate it.

Inon Barnatan It's great to talk to you.

Brian McCreath So, Rachmaninoff is central to any pianist's life by the time they get to your point of a career. But I'm curious about early on. Is Rachmaninoff a composer whose music just, you fell in love with organically at a young age? Or is he one of those composers you came to later on as you learned other music?

Inon Barnatan I think my relationship with Rachmaninoff, and most pianists' relationship with Rachmaninoff, is in some ways similar to an audience's. It's very hard not to fall in love with these pieces immediately. And in fact, often it's the pieces you fall in love with before any others, because it's just such immediately compelling music. And the heart strings get played even before you know, you had... before your heart's been broken, you feel like it's almost there.

So the Rachmaninoff Second, for example, the Second Piano Concerto, was one of the first things I wanted to play. And I played it from hearing when I was a kid, and I kind of invented a lot of the notes, but I really wanted to get to play it. So for me, Rachmaninoff has been a constant, and even though, in some ways, I do a lot of Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, and a lot of contemporary, but Rachmaninoff has been a constant. It's always been a big love for me.

Brian McCreath Well, this is the thing. I look at your track record, your career, your projects over a number of years, and there's no pigeonholing you. You're kind of all over the map. Yes, Schubert and Beethoven, for sure. But you love thematic kinds of collections of pieces. But yes, I can understand that Rachmaninoff would be there from the very beginning at sort of a core. When did you begin taking on the Rhapsody [on a Theme of Paganini]?

Inon Barnatan The Rhapsody was a little bit later than some of the others. I think I first learned the Second [Piano Concerto], and then the Third, and then the Rhapsody, and then the First. I still haven't learned the Fourth Piano Concerto. Actually, I'd love to. But it's a piece that I started learning when I actually was asked to play it, rather than something I learned when I was young. And to really bring it to life, you have to understand how Rachmaninoff uses virtuosity and technique for character's sake. He's so ingenious in the way that he writes for the piano, that he uses these unbelievable technical abilities that he has, both as a composer and pianist, to tell stories. And each variation in this piece tells a different story.

And I have in my own mind different stories that sometimes I share, sometimes with the orchestra, sometimes I don't. Sometimes I even when I rehearse, I say, oh, can we do it from the paragliding variation? And they have no idea what I'm talking about. Or let's do it from, you know, from Salome or whatever. And they, and they just, I forget that it's in my head, but not, not in theirs. But yeah, but in order to really bring that forward, you really have to understand and get beyond the technical element of it.

Brian McCreath Yeah, well, and this is the thing with Rachmaninoff, right? I guess as a non-pianist, I always think of Rachmaninoff, for a pianist, as being daunting because he was such a great pianist and in fact he was the first one to perform this piece with the BSO in, gosh, I think '37, something like that. And so there's this, I imagine, a sort of, you know, presence hovering. And yet to get beyond that technique is the major challenge. I love the way that you think of stories and characters emerging through this piece. As you say, unlike, maybe, some of the other works that he wrote, the concertos maybe don't have quite that same quality.

Inon Barnatan Yeah, the concertos are [an] emotional arc, and you get a story, more of a novel. Whereas this is short stories, which, you know, in very small amount of time - each variation is short and sometimes very short - but he describes a whole world that's very unique to that particular variation. And one of the things about Rachmaninoff, yes, it is daunting because he was one of the greatest pianist of history, and certainly 20th century. But that also means that he really understood the piano like very few composers. So when he writes for the piano, it's very idiomatic. So it actually lies in the hands very well, especially if you have bigger hands, which he did. But even if you don't, he understood how to make the piano sound great.

And in some ways it's easier to play, and certainly more fun to practice, than something like Brahms, for example. Yes, he understood piano, but he wrote almost against the piano. He wrote for the piano as if it was a string quartet, or if it was an orchestra, or... So sometimes you have to make the piano sound, like not a piano, and Rachmaninoff always knew how to work with the instrument. So that's always been something that I think pianists really identify with.

Brian McCreath Sure. When I watch you in rehearsal, as I just did, I notice you kind of making eye contact with so many of the musicians in the orchestra, more than I'm used to seeing a soloist do. Is that particular to this piece? Is there something about this piece that makes you want to make that contact more, or is that just your particular way of working with orchestras?

Inon Barnatan Well, primarily it's my way of working with orchestras. I love feeling like we're playing chamber music together and big chamber music, perhaps. And even if it's not a Mozart concerto. Mozart concertos and Beethoven concertos basically are chamber music. But even in a piece like this, there's so much back and forth musically between the piano and the orchestra. And in this piece specifically, you have all these duets with different instruments. The way they play influences how you play and vice versa. And I also find that it makes me and, I think, them play differently. It makes them play more actively and more collaboratively. Because you're not just accompanying or you're not just providing some, you know, background or anything, you're playing together. So the notion of soloist and orchestra disappears and you just hear the piece.

Brian McCreath Yeah. And this piece seems especially to highlight that there's so much that the piano is absolutely intertwined with the textures of the orchestra. And you have to articulate, shape the notes and phrases exactly the same, or at least in some kind of relationship, they can't be completely separate from each other.

Inon Barnatan Exactly. And it's really gratifying when you can play musical tennis and lob something to somebody in the back of the orchestra and they play it back to you and you... And when we really feel like we're playing together, there's so much less effort to play together. It's, you know, if you breathe together and if you're playing it, then you have the same impetus. You don't really have to work that hard to be together.

Brian McCreath And that's where that eye contact comes in.

Inon Barnatan Eye contact is in some ways a manifestation of it. Ideally, you'd be able to do it with your eyes closed, but it's also a declaration of intent. I want to play with you. I want to communicate. I don't want you just to be accompanying me.

Brian McCreath That's a great way to put it. I love that, "a declaration of intent." That's awesome. The last time I spoke with you, you were here for a Celebrity Series recital, your "Time Traveler's" concert, which is a fantastic concept, now released on CD, by the way, I think just earlier, maybe earlier this year, was it something like that?

Inon Barnatan Maybe it was even last year.

Brian McCreath Or last year. Anyway. But you had just taken up or you were about to take up the position of Music Director at the La Jolla SummerFest. Now I see that you've been, your contract's been renewed. So these last few years have gone well, pandemic or no. You've done well in La Jolla. I'm curious about that role, and when we talked before, you were sort of stepping into this curatorial role that you hadn't really done in, at least on a scale like that before. What have you learned in that role about, especially about audiences, and what audiences respond to that maybe you you didn't expect, or maybe that confirms something you were thinking ahead of time?

Inon Barnatan I learned a lot from it, and it feeds a part of my musical diet that I find incredibly gratifying. Obviously, when you're playing a recital, you can create a journey over an evening. When you're coming to play a concerto, you are part of somebody else's journey in some ways, somebody who, whoever decided the [program]. But when you when you have a whole festival to play with and you can create a narrative, you can create a journey, a musical journey, both in each concert and then over a longer span of time - and it's four weeks - then musically it's very, very gratifying.

You get to think about music in a lot of different ways and also ways that don't have anything to do with you, which is always very healthy for a musician to do. But, it primarily boils down to communication. First of all, chamber music in general - even though we do some larger pieces and we have some conductors coming in doing smaller orchestra things, but mostly it's chamber music - it's the most intimate form of communication. And when you have a chance to build a relationship with an audience and come back over and over and over again, you get a different type of intimacy than you do when you come, let's say, as a guest with the BSO. I've been here before, but it's been a while, and then it'll be a while, probably, until the next time. So to build that musical and personal relationship with an audience is really gratifying.

Brian McCreath And has that led you to thoughts that you will carry forward? Maybe try some new things? You don't have to reveal any plans specifically, but what has that sparked in terms of just concept about ways that you can approach the concert experience from an artist, rather, from an audience perspective that maybe you hadn't tried before?

Inon Barnatan Absolutely. I feel that the concert is evolving. The concept of what a concert is is evolving all the time. And a piano recital and orchestral concert or a chamber concert don't always have to have the same structure. You can start an orchestral concert with a piece for two people and then end with a piece for 100. Or you can play around with one side. For example, I did a version of that recital that you heard in the Celebrity Series. I did it as the opening night of my festival, but using the same concept, but working with a group of 15 people. So basically you have a suite where every movement of the suite is by a different composer and for a different set of instruments. And then I did it also with an orchestra that way. So the idea of collaborating with people and with music and having different relationships between pieces and having a context be richer for the experience, for the audience, I think that's something I absolutely can carry over to recital and to my orchestral concerts and just to my life in general.

Brian McCreath Well, it sounds intriguing, but it mostly sounds fun. It sounds like you're having a really fun time.

Inon Barnatan I absolutely am, yeah. For me, I've always felt that playing concertos, playing solo recitals, and playing chamber music are interlinked. They're not separate. And to get a sandbox in which to do that is really, really fun. Next summer, in my first concert, I won't reveal the program yet, but I get, in the first concert, I get to play a concerto, I get to play chamber music. I also get to play inside the chamber orchestra and for me that's so fun. It really is.

Brian McCreath Absolutely. That's great. Well, Inon Barnatan, it's so good to have you back in Boston. Great to have you here playing Rachmaninoff, especially. And I thank you for your time.

Inon Barnatan Thank you so much. Always great to talk to you. Thanks so much.