The big bad boy of the concert hall
Tzimon Barto is the loud, ex-druggie poet-pianist who doesn’t play by the rules
Tzimon Barto is a bodybuilder. He speaks seven-languages. He’s the author of several novels and a body of poetry. He’s the founder of a program in his local school to teach first-graders music, art and ancient Greek. His lifelong goal is to have his complete written works engraved on 3,000 granite slabs in his back yard in Florida.
He is also a concert pianist who is coming Jan. 22-24 to Washington to play Gershwin’s Concerto in F under the baton of Christoph Eschenbach, the National Symphony Orchestra’s music director, who discovered Barto in 1988 and has performed with him frequently ever since.
The conservative side of the classical music world — the side where orchestras tend to be found — just hates Barto. His detractors don’t like the way he performs in flowing, pirate like shirts, or the way he recites his own poetry before an encore (most notably after a performance of the Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Philadelphia Orchestra). They make jokes about how he could bench-press the piano. They react allergically to what they see as mannerisms in his playing, the love of extremes. He plays too quietly, say some. He is too loud, say others.
“He’s not a person of any real quality,” says Andrew Patner, the classical music critic of the Chicago Sun-Times and the local WFMT radio. In concerto performances,“ he’s a banger, a kind of introverted banger. He doesn’t listen.”
And yet, in the next breath, Patner adds, “He still remains a very fine pianist.”
We’re at the restaurant at the Four
“I don’t get this, ‘You have to do what the composer wanted.’ We’re living in a deconstructionist age. . . . If you run up the stairs of the Parthenon and slit your wrists and scream, the Parthenon still stands. So that’s how small we interpreters are.” — Tzimon Barto, on his idiosyncratic approach to music
Seasons Hotel in Chicago, before a concert with Eschenbach last summer, and Barto is ordering a breakfast worthy of a he-man who works out every day.
“Let’s order lots of stuff!” he says with a child’s eagerness, then proceeds to eat a stack of pancakes, a six-egg-white omelet stuffed with vegetables, a large bowl of cereal and several pieces of whole-wheat toast.
“It’s for obvious reactionary reasons,” he says of his bodybuilding, calling it a response to the torments of middle school, when he was “overweight, with thick glasses,” and teased unmercifully by classmates. Back then he was named Johnny Barto Smith Jr., a musically inclined child born in the small city of Eustis, Fla., about an hour from Orlando.
Barto, we submit, is an American original: Without a preexisting channel for his quirky energies, he’s struck out on his own, and the result is a life that resembles a painting by the outsider folk artist Howard Finster, vivid and bright and idiosyncratic. Yet for all of the pianist’s flamboyance, he proves, in person, disarmingly frank (unafraid to talk, for example, of his past crack cocaine habit), funny, smart, even down-toearth — or as down-to-earth as a person can be when the subject of discussion is the cost of erecting thousands of granite slabs in his back yard.
“I learned I can do it for half a million!” he says, with characteristic glee.
This time, he was speaking by phone from Florida in the middle of the night, having requested an interview any time between 5 p.m. and 8 a.m. He generally sleeps until 3 p.m. Keeping the night-owl schedule allows him uninterrupted time to work on his Chinese, practice the piano, write and read. He says he keeps his languages active by reading in them: Earlier this month, his list included Proust in French (for the second time) and “Album” by the literary heavyweight Hans Magnus Enzensberger, in German, as well as several philosophical and linguistics tomes in English. (“Philosophy keeps me grounded,” he says.)
Oh, and he’s also working on a physics paper concerning the relationship between musical frequencies and the periodic table. Punctuating all of this is a meal at Denny’s in the wee hours of the morning.
His approach to music is equally idiosyncratic.
“I don’t get this, ‘You have to do what the composer wanted,’ ” he says, cheerfully uttering a classical-music heresy. “We’re living in a deconstructionist age.” He doesn’t think an unusual interpretation can damage a masterpiece.
“If you run up the stairs of the Parthenon and slit your wrists and scream,” he says, “ the Parthenon still stands. So that’s how small we interpreters are.”
He adds, “I like to take a piece apart and do it differently. But not . . . for the sake of being different, but because you feel it that way. If I grew up in central Florida without any traditions, I’m going to do it naturally, and [anything else] is going to be pretentious.”
This just isn’t how classical musicians are supposed to behave. This isn’t how classical music is done. In a world whose practitioners often function like priests — “ he lives like a monk,” Barto says of his own mentor, Eschenbach— a polymath such as Barto, who worships at the temple of other gods, represents an unwelcome irreverence.
He only practices a couple of hours a day, and he doesn’t even propagandize for the pieces he is playing. Of the Gershwin he’s bringing to Washington — which he’ll play on the NSO program, along with Peter Lieberson’s new work commissioned for the 50th anniversary of President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration — Barto says, “It’s extremely easy to play technically. It’s wonderful to accept gigs where all you have to do are easy” works.
His reviews are mixed. Germans often like him; the French less so, and in England, he is reviewed “with great condescension,” he says, or not at all. “You can’t change what other people think about you.”
It truly is a question of taste. And Eschenbach — though he’s been attacked for it in the press— remains one of his biggest fans.
“He’s writing very intensely and very well, very interesting, very new,” Eschenbach says in his lightly accented English. “And also the many things he is interested in, and all the languages he speaks, it’s amazing. It’s inspiring.”
Barto, says the conductor, is “a person who burns at all ends.”
Barto’s mother is a town commissioner in Eustis; his father runs a contracting company. Johnny Barto Smith Jr. had his first piano lessons from his grandmother at 5; wrote an opera at 9; and at 16 had a fainting spell in church (the family were Southern Baptists) that he says culminated in a life-changing vision involving the number 70, 707 and the Book of Genesis.
Thus began an artistic trajectory that will culminate in the “Stele” project, which encompasses at least 12 novels an dreams of poetry engraved on six-foot granite slabs (3,367 of them, a factor of 70,707) that he will start installing when he turns 58, in another 10 years. (Though numbers are important to him, Barto, born in 1963, was under the impression that he had turned 49 on Jan. 2 — and was incredulous, then delighted, when I informed him that he was actually only 48.)
Barto says he was forbidden to try ballet or theater by his malerole-conscious father, and went to Juilliard as a triple major in piano, conducting and vocal coaching. His piano teacher was the redoubtable Adele Marcus, who gave him old-school tutelage and came up with his stage name. As hewaspreparing for a recital, they discussed the fact that Johnny Barto Smith seemed a little bland for a pianist; Marcus suggested “ Tzimon Barto.” (The first name is pronounced “ TZEE-moan.”)
Whenshe sawthe newnameon a poster soon afterward, he says, she called him up and said, “I was kidding!” But the moniker stuck.
It was at Gian Carlo Menotti’s Spoleto Festival in Italy that he met Christoph Eschenbach. Part of Barto’s endearing self-awareness is the frankness with which he depicts his young self of that epoch as “a pompous [arse], walking around in a Gucci cape at night.”
Having arrived at Menotti’s invitation, along with his first wife, Barto was sure his future as Spoleto’s director was in the bag. But “Menotti said to me at the end of the summer, ‘You know, everyone hates you. I can’t have you back.’ I didn’t even do anything,” Barto adds, laughing. “I was just a bastard.”
But Barto didmeet Eschenbach that summer, played for him late into the night, accepted his invitation to become his assistant in Zurich and never returned to school. Mentoring is one thing on which Eschenbach prides himself; in Barto’s case, it extended far beyond music. “He introducedme to German literature,” Barto says. “He introduced me to modern painting, which I had no idea of.” Barto ultimately gave up on the conducting career, but the collaboration continued onstage.
“AdeleMarcus was very conservative in her piano music,” Barto says. “Christoph openedmeup, he loosened me a lot.”
Offstage, too, they attained a familial closeness, which extended to Barto’s second wife, Gesa. Eschenbach was godfather to their son, Ori. And he was talking on the phone to Gesa one afternoon while Ori, then 17, who had epilepsy and Asperger’s syndrome, was following his favorite Friday afternoon routine of putting on a CD, jumping around his roomandclapping hishandsto let off steam, and suddenly — a seizure? an aneurysm?— died.
“In one moment,” Barto says, “you lose all the tawdry aspects of your character. You have no more ego, ambition; youdon’t fightwith people. You see how ludicrous it all is.” Three months before, Barto had been arrested for possession of crack cocaine, which he says he had used in a controlled way for years — once a week — but which started to get out of control.
Ori’s death in 2008 was a catalyst: he has not touched drugs or alcohol since, he says.
Almost three years later, Ori’s room is untouched. “I don’t let anybody wash the pillowcase,” Barto says. A candle burns, ’round the clock, and the last book Ori read— aHardy Boysmystery— is at the bedside, along with some special books of Barto’s own.
Before their son’s death, he and Gesa were already planning to separate, he says; now he is planning to marry the novelist Irene Dische.
Since Ori’s death, Barto has thrown himself into his work even more. But he hasn’t changed direction; he is still working on the artistic vision he had at 16.
He knows there are ways he could win more regard in the music world. But he doesn’t really care.
“I was always told when I was younger that people weren’t taking me seriously, and I should do more chamber music,” he says.
People who play chamber music, in the classical world, are serious. People who put self-memorializing granite slabs in their back yards are not. And that’s fine with Tzimon Barto.
AMERICAN ORIGINAL: Barto is a favorite of NSO conductor Eschenbach.
THE DREAM: Barto plans to inscribe his poems and 12 novels on 3,367 slabs of granite in Florida.