The big bad boy of the con­cert hall

Tz­i­mon Barto is the loud, ex-drug­gie poet-pi­anist who doesn’t play by the rules

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MID­GETTE

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.

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