Pianist  Tzimon  Barto

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Tzimon Barto is one of those rare musicians to have established a notable parallel career in another artistic field. Along with achieving great success as a concert pianist, he has drawn acclaim for his first book, A lady of Greek origin, a work of 28 poems, all of disparate style. To say Barto's intellect is rare would be an understatement. He speaks five languages; reads ancient Greek, Hebrew, and Latin; and is a scholar of literature, philosophy, natural science and the Bible. Barto's piano repertory is broad, encompassing works by Bach, Rameau, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Gershwin, de Falla, Joplin, and many others.

Barto was born Johnny Barto Smith, Jr., on January 2, 1963, in Eustis, FL. At 5 he began taking piano lessons from his grandmother, and at 9 he wrote an opera, including the libretto. He studied music at Rollins College and the Brevard Music Center. From 1981-1985 he studied at Juilliard under the iconic piano pedagogue Adele Marcus, who suggested that her student change his name to Tzimon Barto.

Barto won the Juilliard Concerto Competition and twice won the Gina Bachauer Competition. At the behest of composer Gian Carlo Menotti, Barto, having also studied conducting, was invited to appear at the 1985 Spoleto Festival as both conductor and pianist. The following year Barto led performances there of Menotti's opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street.

1989 was a pivotal year in Barto's career. He debuted at the Vienna Musikverein in February with conductor Christoph Eschenbach, and his first recording -- featuring the Prokofiev Third Concerto, the Ravel G major Concerto, and the Gershwin Rhapsody in Blue, led by Andrew Davis-- was released on EMI.


At the invitation of Herbert von Karajan, he appeared at the Salzburg Festival the following year. Barto became a familiar presence on the concert circuit thereafter, regularly appearing at major venues in the U.S. and abroad including New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Paris, Berlin, and St. Petersburg. Numerous recordings appeared in the 1990s and early years of the new century as well.

In 2001, his book A lady of Greek origin was published, and later a stage version of it was presented in Frankfurt, Germany, and Vienna (2005). Barto's collection on CD of keyboard works by Rameau, entitled A Basket of Wild Strawberries, was released in spring, 2006 on the Ondine label.


Barto has always been actively involved in contemporary music and created an international composition competition for piano solo in 2006 – the “Barto Prize”.

--  Biography by Robert Cummings (with additions) 

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 


When one sees someone on the street, often an immediate impression is formed.  You might consider what job they do, or what kind of personality they have just from this momentary glance.  Sometimes that feeling will be correct, but just as often it will be far off the mark. 

I mention this because when you see the photo of my guest above, his appearance might make you think he is the piano mover rather than the artist!  Yes, besides his artistic endeavors, he is a body-builder, and we spoke of that later in the interview.

Tzimon Barto returned to Chicago for performances with the Chicago Symphony in the spring of 1996.  The orchestra was at Medinah Temple, their temporary home while Orchestra Hall was undergoing renovations.  This was perhaps appropriate for a man with the size and stature of Barto, since the hall was about one-third larger than their regular space.  The orchestra was used to making recordings there, but rarely utilized it for public concerts.

Since they were guests only for a month or so, the accommodations backstage were nice, but a bit haphazard.  So when the pianist and I looked for a place to do the interview, he sat at the rehearsal piano and I just grabbed a nearby chair... which happened to be a bit smaller than anticipated!

Tzimon Barto:    You look cute down there. [Laughs]

Bruce Duffie:    I feel like a little kid...  Pull up a chair and sit on the floor!  [Both laugh] 
Well, let’s start right there.  A pianist has to think not only of his instrument but also about his seat.  Are you very careful about the bench you sit on?

Barto:    Oh, yes.  There are more problems with benches than there are with pianos, especially in the recording studio.  Some of them make little tiny squeaks that the performer sometimes doesn’t even hear.

barto BD:    But they’re picked up on the microphone?

Barto:    Mm-hm.  I also find I have to go through two or three benches just before the rehearsal or the performance can start because lots of them do make noise.

BD:    Do you aim to be comfortable, or do you aim to be sitting erect and in a proper position?

Barto:    Both.  There’s actually just two different kinds of benches at this time.  The standard bench has a wheel, and you just roll it with your hands to get the proper adjustment.

BD:    That’s just adjusting up and down?

Barto:    Yes, the adjustment is going up and down, but very slowly.  You have to sort of sit up and then sit back down again, so it looks ridiculous.  I try to never do it before a concert because it looks like you’re trying to sit down on the toilet.  [Laughs]  The other, I believe, is made by Boesendorfer, and it’s a horrible bench.  It’s made out of steel so it never, ever will make noises.  But you have to sit up and then release a spring, and the bench will go to a certain height.  Then you have to stop it and really screw it very tight or it will fall.  If you’re sitting there and it’s not tight enough, all of a sudden you’ll fall down a half a foot.  It’s absurd, so I never use those.

BD:    Do you always sit level or do you sit pitched forward?

Barto:    I think it’s very important you should feel like a sovereign above the keyboard, so you have to be a little bit above.  Then you have more power, you have more control, and psychologically you feel better looking a little bit down on the keys instead of like Glenn Gould, whose repertoire is, I must say, very different from the Romantic repertoire I do.  I don’t ever sit that low, like he would.

BD:    He looks sort of hunched over at the keyboard.

Barto:    Right.  He wouldn’t be able to play Rachmaninoff Third in that position, anyway.

BD:    Right, but it was good for Bach.

Barto:    Yes.

BD:    Do you change your seating position at all for the repertoire that you’re playing?

Barto:    I haven’t noticed.  I’d have to make a study of it.  [Both laugh]  I don’t think so, though.  Sometimes when I play with the orchestra and doing a tut
ti, I might adjust it a little bit in the course of the piece just because I might feel a smidgen too high or smidgen too low.

BD:    We talked a little bit about the bench, so let’s talk about the instrument.  You are at the mercy of whatever instrument is put in front of you. 

Barto:    Mm-hm.

BD:    Do you generally get good instruments?

Barto:    Yes, or acceptable.  It’s very rare that you get something that’s really abysmal, but I must say up until now I’ve had a lot of good luck because also I only play on Steinways.  This isn’t a plug for Steinway, but I realize at Steinway you’re going to have a greater chance of always having a good piano than you would with other piano manufacturers.  So I always play on Steinway.

BD:    Do they send their technician to make sure that their piano is right for you?

Barto:    It depends on where you’re playing.  If you’re playing a recital in the middle of the wilderness, then they would have to send a technician.  But most of the halls have their own technician, which also, of course, happens to be a Steinway technician because most of the pianos used in the United States and in Europe are Steinways.

BD:    Do you have any special requirements to adjust the hammers and action a certain way?

Barto:    No, no.  I haven’t gotten that screwed up yet.  That will come with age, maybe, and I’ll start having little caprices like that.

BD:    When you sit down at a piano, any piano, how long is it before you make it your own?

Barto:    That takes a while.  It might take four concerts, sometimes.  It depends on the piano, but I believe in the maxim that says, “There is no such thing as a bad piano, there’s only bad pianists.”  That means no matter what you get, we have to be good prostitutes.  We have to make an audience still reach their peak and we have to make the music reach its peak.  So I don’t believe in complaining about pianos.  It’s there and it can’t be changed... unless it can be changed.  That’s different.  But if it can’t be changed, you better go out and perform just as you would on an excellent piano.

BD:    That doesn’t put too much responsibility on your shoulders, even though your shoulders look like a body builder’s?

Barto:    No, I don’t think so.  [Laughs]

barto BD:    Is it surprising at all for the concert audience to see someone who looks like a body builder come out and play either very rigorously or very delicately at the piano?

Barto:    You can always tell because I wear a pirate sort of shirt which has long, puffy white sleeves.  Or a Lord Byron shirt, if you will, a sort of 19th Century, flowing, big puffy white shirt.  I wear that because I feel much more comfortable playing in that than I do in tails because I find they’re too constrictive.  So, when you come out on stage and you’re six foot two and you weigh 240 pounds, and you wear this white shirt, after the applause you always hear [makes a tittering noise] in the audience, and you know they’re all talking about it.  At first people were a little peeved at me because they thought I was using it for a gimmick, to be different.  That’s a problem you have when you’re young, people thinking you do things to be different, when in fact you’re just doing it because you feel better that way.  I like to play in this shirt, and I really don’t care what the other people think, if they like it or not.  But I do know my wife likes it and the orchestras like it.  In fact they look on it a little bit with envy because they’d like to play in them, too.

BD:    Sure.  The usual concert dress is really constricting.

Barto:    Right.

BD:    So you want the people just to enjoy the music and not necessarily you as a pianist?

Barto:    I’d like for them to enjoy me as a pianist and the music.  But if I weighed 400 pounds, or if I was a scrawny little fifty pound midget, I don’t think that it matters, really.  That doesn’t matter to people who come to classical concerts.  They do come, for the most part, for the music.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  But I assume you like it when all the women in the audience go, “Aaahh!”

Barto:    [Smiles]  I guess I better enjoy it while I can, because it won’t last.  It fades, doesn’t it?

BD:    Perhaps one’s looks fade.  Is your artistic achievement going to fade, or will it grow with years?

Barto:    Oh, let’s hope it grows.  What I’ve always striven to do in my playing is to play with lots and lots of colors.  I pride myself on having about thirty or thirty-two colors.  I like to play very, very soft.  I love the colors that are in the piano reach when you get to pianissimo, or three p’s.  I love that because it makes people listen.  There are many artists who don’t like to do it for whatever reason.  One main reason is they fear that the audience will cough, or that they won’t pay attention, but I find the contrary to be true.  If you really play a beautiful, singing pianissimo à la Monserrat Caballé, people are going to listen.  They really do, and it enchants them.

BD:    Do you take into account the audience?  Each audience is going to be different, so some of them will be harder to get to and some of them will be easier to get to.

Barto:    I find that more and more today, for whatever reason.  A lot of it, of course, has to do with the age of information in which we live, and television.  I find audiences very, very similar now throughout the world, and there’s pros and cons to it.  But audiences that go to classical music concerts on the level that I’m playing and where I’m playing, are very similar in their responses to the music.  You would think that in the United States, for example, it would be more difficult than in Europe to program really contemporary music, something really avant-garde, but the same is true in Europe.  In Europe, they’re just as lazy about listening to modern music as they are over here, and it affects ticket sales to a certain degree.  I do not play that much modern music, but when I do, I notice the halls are filled to maybe just seventy to eighty per cent capacity.  Whereas, if I play Rachmaninoff or Tchaikovsky or Prokofiev, the halls would be totally full.  So that’s the difference.  But that shouldn’t mean you shouldn’t program new things.   You’ll just play for a smaller audience.  So what?

BD:    Well, from the huge array of literature written for the piano, how do you decide which pieces you’ll put in your repertoire, and which pieces you’ll set aside for another day, or maybe never come to?

Barto:    Yes, it’s great.  We’re very spoiled as pianists, and it’s a wonderful thing.  We can take a Beethoven sonata and say, “No, I don’t like these two measures here.”  I’m not criticizing Beethoven, but I don’t feel them.  I can’t do them justice.  There’s thirty-one others to pick from if you don’t want to play that particular one!  And then if you don’t want to play any Beethoven sonatas, there’s a myriad of other pieces.

barto BD:     I would assume that it’s the opposite, though, that there’s so much that you want to play and so much that touches you?

Barto:    Yes, and then you have to decide.  It’s fun to build recital programs because the home of a classical pianist is virtually a library.  It’s just packed full of scores.  Some years you don’t like Mozart so much.  The next year you might.  The problem is for many recitals you have to give your program a year in advance, or two years in advance in many cases, and I find that detrimental to the repertoire because sometimes your tastes do change.

BD:    You don’t want to know that on a certain Thursday two years from now you’re going to play this piece and that piece?

Barto:    Right.  What I try to always do in recital programs is just like the piano playing itself, to make lots of colors and lots of different textures.  Sort of like what the classical music radio stations in the states do at the moment.  You’ll have the Tannhäuser overture and then you’ll have a guitar piece by Albeniz.  Then you’ll have an obscure work by Arthur Sullivan, but then all of a sudden comes the Brahms Second Symphony.

BD:    Balance and contrast.

Barto:    I like it.  My programs have a little bit more form than that because I like to think of instrumental music as either being a song or a lyrical outpouring
say, a nocturne of Chopin, or a theater pieceor a more complicated structural piece like a sonata.  In Mozart’s case it can most often be like a little opera buffo.  Then for the main work of the evening, the entrée, I might use a dance piece.  Some music, like the Brahms Paganini Variations, are variations on a theme that in most cases belongs to what I would call, because of its rhythmic sense and evolution in the piece, a dance piece, just like an evening at the ballet of a modern ballet only more so.

BD:    Do you find that the composers who wrote a lot of vocal music, such as Schubert and Mozart, write differently for the piano than ones who wrote little or no vocal music, like Brahms or even Beethoven?

Barto:    No, I wouldn’t say that because it’s surprising how beautifully lyrical the works are from Brahms.  Brahms did write tons of vocal music, songs.  The germ is there for everything.  In fact, most composers start out in their teenage years, or even when they’re in puberty, writing lots of songs because that’s the most accessible form to be performed when you’re young.  You can invite Aunt Emma over to sing through one of your songs, and you can be instantly gratified.  So that’s where most composers start, is writing for their own instrument, or writing songs.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You do some contemporary music.  How do you decide if you’re going to learn a brand new work?

Barto:    If I like it.  I like what Leonard Bernstein said once, although it’s a little earthy... he said, “If it makes me cum, I want to do it.”  So I look at the score and I play it through, or I listen to a CD and I realize I want to do it or I don’t want to do it.  We have so much repertoire from the seventeenth century on, but we even have more in comparison from just the past twenty years.  It’s immense how many people write music, just like the people that write poetry!


BD:    Is it too much?

Barto:    Well, no!  More power to them, but that means that we can be really picky as performers, and that’s why there’s a lot of works that aren’t being performed.

BD:    Without mentioning any names at all, do you feel there’s some great music coming along these days?

Barto:    Mm-hm.  But again, it’s hard to judge because you don’t want to take risks in saying it’s great because you want to see first, when they’re dead or when they’re old and you can look back on an entire oeuvre and pick out what is great, and see if they were really as great as you thought one or two pieces were.  For example, I think Messiaen was a mammoth composer, a monumental composer of this century.  From young composers, Tobias Picker is very, very gifted, but whether he makes the bridge over into where it pleases a European sensibility about what modern music should be, that’s a different ball of wax.  But for me, I love him and he’s great for this country.

BD:    Do you specifically then try to play some of his music at regular intervals?

Barto:    Yes.  In fact, I played on one very, very accessible piece called Old and Lost Rivers.  It’s not such a big work, just five minutes, but the way I like to program lots of modern music is to juxtapose it with another work.  I played a Chopin nocturne and a Barber nocturne together because they went wonderfully together.  I played a Chopin nocturne and Tobias Picker’s Old and Lost Rivers together because they went well together.  I like to find those combinations rather than dare to do a whole half with a forty-minute piece
which I haven’t found yet, by the way.

BD:    How do you divide your career at the moment between solo concerts and concerto appearances?  And do you play some chamber music?

Barto:    I don’t do chamber music too often because I have a wife and a boy who travel with me all the time.  I have a ranch in Florida and a really nice car, so I’ve got to make money, and chamber music just doesn’t cut the mustard sometimes!  [Both laugh]  Isn’t that a horrible thing to say?  It’s not really true.  I played with Christa Ludwig a lot on tour, and I play a lot with Heinrich Schiff.

BD:    When he’s playing cello and not conducting?

Barto:    Yes, when he’s playing cello.  I love the collaboration with Heinrich.  Then I play with a very gifted German violinist called Christiane Edinger, who is not too well known over here, although she does make appearances.  She’s very well known for modern music interpretations and also for premiering a lot of Penderecki’s work.

Christiane Edinger studied with Vittorio Brero at the Hochschule für Musik, Berlin (University of Music), with Nathan Milstein in Gstaad (Switzerland), and with Joseph Fuchs at the Julliard School of Music, New York.

She played with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for the first time at the age of nineteen. Two years later, she made her debut at the Carnegie Hall in New York as part of the Young Concert Artists, Inc. program. Since then she has played regularly with all the major German orchestras. She has guested throughout Europe and frequently given recitals and concerts in the USA; concert tours took her to South America, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and East Asia (Japan, Korea, China).

Her repertoire covers an extraordinarily wide range. Besides the standard repertoire, she is committed to playing rarely heard works from the Romantic era. A key focus of her work is on the oeuvre of Eduard Franck, whose violin concertos and chamber music works she has recorded for Audite. Another of her particular interests is contemporary music. Several composers have written works especially for her, including

*Erhard Grosskopf (Violin Concerto; first performance in Berlin with Bruno Maderna);
*Cristobal Halffter ( Violin Concertos Nos. 1 and 2, first performance in Madrid and Stuttgart with Cristobal Halffter);
*Peter Michael Hamel (Duo Aus Claras Tagebuch (From Clara's Diary), first performance in Düsseldorf with Tzimon Barto),
                (Violin Concerto
, first performance in Munich with Alicja Mounk);
*Henri Lazarof (Violin Concerto No.3, first performance in Liverpool with Gerald Schwarz);
*Friedhelm Döhl (Concerto a due, first performance in Hanover at Expo 2000 with James Tocco, Solo for Violin);
*2010, first performance in Shanghai of 8 works for solo violin, written by composition students of the Shanghai University of Music.

BD:    So it’s mostly recitals and concertos for you.  How do you divide your time?

Barto:    At the moment it’s about sixty per cent concerti and forty per cent recital.  I play approximately a hundred concerts a year.  I don’t want to play any more than that, and I would say sixty of those are with orchestras.  The rest, forty, are recitals, and the body of the recital work is in Europe because there’s just not venues anymore in the States for recitals, except in major cities.  In Europe we can still play in many, many little cities that have wonderful audiences and very good fees, and a wonderful tradition for that sort of thing.

BD:    Would you rather play in a great big hall for lots of people, or in a small, intimate hall for a discerning crowd?

Barto:    I’d like to play in a big hall for a discerning crowd!  I love big halls. Can I have my cake and eat it too?  [Both laugh]  I look a little ridiculous in small halls.  I just feel better on a big stage.

BD:    You mentioned you always play Steinway.  Do you ever think about maybe using a Mozart piano for a Mozart sonata?

barto Barto:    Oh, no, no, no, please, no.  I can’t stand it.  Oh, I hate it!  Oh, my God!  I was just listening to the radio the other day and I heard a piece done on a hammerklavier, and it was like, “Why bother, when it sounds this horrible?”  Intellectually I can understand the rationalization, but it just sounds so damn bad!  Many composers weren’t satisfied with it.  Bach was always looking for a replacement for the harpsichord, for something that would sing more.  He just didn’t like the piano at that stage, and I can’t blame him.  And Beethoven practically commissioned a new piano with more strings.  He wasn’t satisfied either.  He crashed through the piano like God knows what.

BD:    So you’re happy to give him the big Steinway sound?

Barto:    Oh, yes.  We can always be making improvements more and more on what we have, but we should never knock an instrument that’s improved upon an instrument.

BD:    [Playing Devil
’s advocate]  Why don’t we go even farther and use electronic instruments where you can control the sound even more?  You can control the pitch and you don’t have technical problems.

Barto:    Because that’s the problem.  They control the sound, and the artist wants to control the sound.  With an electric instrument, you have another body doing the work in addition to yourself, whereas with the piano it is actually an object working in collaboration with the man.

BD:    Are you the absolute dictator of the sound?

Barto:    No, because of course it depends on the acoustic of the hall and the piano, too.  The analogy I would use is playing the piano is a lot like a bullfight.  The piano is the bull and we’re the toreador, and we have to master this animal.

BD:    Do you always win?

Barto:    Or you can be gored!  [Both laugh]

BD:    I hope you’re not gored too often!

Barto:    No.  At my age I can’t afford to be.  I am too young.

BD:    Are you pleased with where you are at this age?

Barto:    Oh, absolutely!  I’m very happy and I feel very blessed.  The nice thing, when you feel this way and you’re playing a lot, is you want to give, give, give because you’ve been given so much.  You come into that wonderful circle of accepting and giving back, and it’s a very nice, harmonious feeling.

BD:    Are the concerts that you play of classical music for everyone?

Barto:    The way I look at it is that in life you have two different kinds of people.  You have people who wear masks and you have people who don’t wear masks.  The mask is the lie.  So anyone who is looking for beauty, for something that will make them feel things they’ve never felt before, or evoke again a feeling that was beautiful for them, that’s what classical music is all about.  I don’t mean programmatic feelings.  I don’t mean remembering a beautiful autumn day with rain four years ago when you were in the Catskills.  I mean a musical feeling that can’t be put in words.  That’s what you try to give.  The kind of emotion you try to evoke in a person is something which cannot be put in words.

BD:    We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the question straight on.  What is the purpose of music?

Barto:    For me, music is actually the perfect analogy of the spirit.  It’s my religion and that’s why I do it.  When they’re really listening to beautifully written music, that’s what people get out of it
something very spiritual.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We talked a bit about sizes of halls, but when we talk about recordings, do you play the same for the microphone as you do for a live audience?

Barto:    Yes.  I try to go through it like a concert.  For my Chopin record, I went to the studio, I played it two or three times through as if I was giving a performance.  We might have done some spots to make them really perfect because you can’t leave bloopers.  People don’t like it so we have to make everything perfect, which is okay.  I try to get through it in one day instead of the three or four sessions.

barto BD:    Are you pleased with the records you’ve made so far?

Barto:    Yes.  I do like my records.  I think they’re my best playing because in a performance you can’t repeat things to make them better, but in the recording studio you can.  But you could also drive yourself really wild in the recording studio and stay there for months, always changing and changing and changing, just like an old Japanese poet might change a Haiku for his whole life, until he gets it.  [Laughs]

BD:    Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Barto:    From the pianist’s standpoint I would stay no because our expectations are high.  But for someone in the audience or for me listening to someone else, I would say yes.

BD:    Is there a competition amongst pianists?

Barto:    Oh, I guess so.  In any field there’s competition.  It’s just how to look upon it and how to deal with it.  These days I feel very lucky.  I feel sorry for the poor violinists, because look at how many young violinists there are who are fantastic!  Really.  I can tell you twenty names.  But there aren’t as many young pianists as young violinists.  The way I look upon them is generational
from twenty to thirty, from thirty to forty, from forty to fifty.  If you start fragmenting like that you’ll feel much more at ease with yourself in the world.  You have to tend to your city block, and not make yourself crazy thinking about the galaxy of other musicians out there.

BD:    So you’re not competing with the shades of Rubinstein and Horowitz?

Barto:    No, I’m competing with myself.  I admire and sometimes I even go as far as to emulate and imitate some things that a great pianist does.  That’s part of it.  My god is Horowitz. 

BD:    But I hope you’re not going to retire from the stage and stay away for years like he did!

Barto:    Oh, I don’t know.  I can’t predict the future.  I can’t see it at this point, but one never knows.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of musical performance?

Barto:    Yes.  I believe as long as there is music there will be someone to perform it.  In America I get scared sometimes because of the way different parts of the country say, “We don’t need to subsidize the arts in schools,” or “Let’s drop the arts totally from the school system.”  That’s absurd!  If people have any brains, they would look upon the philosophies of the ancient Greeks.  They would look upon the philosophies of the medieval times to see that arts in the schools stimulates the learning for math and reading.  It stimulates an unbelievable respect for human life.  If you’re studying an instrument, you would be surprised at how that affects how you deal with other people psychologically.  You don’t go out and shoot someone.  If you would take babies from a really bad neighborhood in any part of the world and give them a classical music education for one hour a day on top of the rest of the curriculum of a school, you would see without a doubt that there would be less violence in that community.  They’ve also proven that even listening to classical music stimulates a part of the brain where you do better on exams, which I find interesting because for a long time lots of college grads I talked with have said they like to study while listening to classical music.  I never respected that, but then it made a little bit of sense later, when they did tests where they would play some pop music
just music that says really nothingand have them study and take a test, and then would play classical music for others and they would take the test, of course the people who listened to classical music, especially Mozart, did better because it stimulates the structural part of the brain.  You think structurally.

barto BD:    You bring up an interesting point.  Is there no entertainment value in an artistic achievement?

Barto:    Yes, but it’s divine entertainment.  It’s a different kind because it goes deeper.  We’re talking about depth, that’s all.  I’m not knocking pop music because for me pop music is transplanted folk music.  There used to be folk music.  There is no more folk music anymore.  It’s now the music of the masses.  Country-western is transplanted folk music.  There’s rock ‘n roll which came out of folk music into the blues, into jazz, into becoming rock ‘n roll on that line.  If it’s interesting, many times classical music uses elements from pop music, just like Haydn did, just like Mozart did.  It uses different kinds of elements.  That’s what many modern composers are doing now.  I’ve even seen a concerto for rock band and symphony orchestra.

BD:    Sure.  Mozart put country dances into some of his symphonies and serenades!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Ádám Fischer.]

Barto:    Right, and that’s what I miss a lot
if I’m going to be criticallooking at lots of the esotericism of modern classical music, art music.  Many of them don’t take the risk to use popular elements.  It would be nice to see a suite of four movements where one might beoh my God! — a rap song, or something using elements from rap.  Another would be something I like a lot, for example, video art.  It would be interesting to use electronic devices in this way, to mix a lot of different elements because we live in one of the most colorful ages ever.  We have such an access to a million different things, and I miss this kind of energy in a musical composition.

BD:    If composers find out about this, they’re going to come to you and ask that you be part of their new piece.

Barto:    I’ll give them my address!

BD:    Have them call your agent to see if you’re available?

Barto:    Yes.

BD:    Do you specifically try to make time for these things in your career?

Barto:    Yes, if something comes.  Several times I wasn’t the problem, the composer was the problem.  The commission was supposed to be due, and they were writing the night before as if they were Mozart writing the Don Giovanni overture the night before.  [Both laugh]  That’s being nasty.  Some of my best friends are composers, and of course I take the time.

BD:    Looking at it from the other end of the telescope, is it right to subject audiences who have gone through wars and depressions and everything, to music of a more easy and simple age such as Mozart and Haydn?

Barto:    I can’t prescribe music for what people want to listen to for their psychological reasons or needs.  [Laughs]

BD:    Does it still speak to us today?

Barto:    I think it speaks more to us because of that.  That’s why people don’t want to listen to it.  They pull back within themselves.  They go into a sort of remission, a musical, emotional remission.  Repent!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Do you have any advice for younger pianists coming along?

Barto:    After eighteen you’re not a young pianist anymore these days, so I couldn’t advise them on anything.  Also, they’re too conceited
like I was! — to even take advice or criticism.  I would advise pianists who are in early adolescence or younger to take an opera score or take a choral score or take song literature and read through all these works that you can.  This is in addition to reading the piano music, because you know all the piano music.  You know that all that literature, but you don’t know the other repertoire necessarily, and that will help your sight reading.  It will help you later.  You’ll be able to take the Rachmaninoff First Concerto and learn it in a week because you played all the time reading opera scores, reading through Götterdämmerung, reading through Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  That’s where it’s really fun, and it affects your piano playing.

barto BD:    Do you have any advice for composers?

Barto:    No.  I wouldn’t dare to give advice to composers because in my profession I’m a recreative personality.  I have no right to give advice to someone who is the luckiest of them all, and that’s to be a creator.

BD:    When you get a score in front of you, whether it be Mozart or Beethoven or Tobias Picker, how much is that composer, and how much is Tzimon Barto?

Barto:    This is going to get into semantics because what I say now I would say differently tomorrow and mean the same thing.  It’s actually his piece totally.  The way I look at it is if Beethoven had heard his Fifth Symphony as many times as we have over a period of a life, he would welcome different interpretations.  Even horrid ones might even please him because they’re so refreshing and full of risk, and are just looking for something different.  Actually I would say it’s fifty-fifty on the stage
— it’s fifty per cent of me and fifty per cent of the composer.  Then tomorrow I might say that maybe it’s a hundred per cent of the composer and I’m just the shadow on top, or vice versa.  However, we have no right to do something, to follow a gesture that’s not written in the score — even an effect or a gimmickand I really don’t believe there are people that do that.  The question insinuates that there are artists somewhere who are doing something against the grain of the music, but for them it’s not.

BD:    But I assume there must be some latitude for interpretation?

Barto:    No.  I believe, like Maria Callas said, “Style is just good sense.”

BD:    But it’s your good sense.  It’s not some other person’s good sense.

Barto:    Right.  That’s the way it is, and of course you’re going to offend someone who would rather have it done his way.  Then that person will usually say about the artist that, “He’s too full of himself.  He’s doing something that the composer did not wish.”  I believe that a piece of music is like the Parthenon.  You can run up and down the stairs, and beat on the columns, and commit suicide, and cry and wale, and the Parthenon is still going to be standing in the morning.  That’s how I believe a Tchaikovsky symphony is, for example.  Unless you change a dotted rhythm into an equal rhythm or totally distort in that sense, there is no way you can wreck Tchaikovsky.  It’s too good a piece.  You can do an allegro tempo at a quarter note equals one hundred twenty while someone else would do a quarter note equals sixty IF you personally feel it that way.

BD:    That doesn’t move it back to andante, or even adagio?

Barto:    Right, because your adagio might be negative forty on the metronome.  [Laughs]  So it’s all relative.

BD:    You must keep everything in balance.

Barto:    Right, for yourself.  But style is good sense... or style is the man, to quote the most famous maxim.

BD:    Is playing piano fun?

Barto:    Yes, most of the time, I must say.  It’s a joy.  Many look down upon it a little bit if you talk that way, but sometimes it can be just like a sport with a lot of cultivation and good sense.  But to play the piano, to have all ten fingers going on a keyboard, is a wonderful physical feeling!


BD:    Obviously, taking a look at you, you must do some physical exercise on a regular basis.

Barto:    Yes, I’m an avid body-builder.  It’s my hobby, and people think I’m cuckoo.  It took me a while because many people thought I was using it to get some publicity, or as a gimmick to get more people into classical music concerts, which couldn’t be further from the truth.  I just like it.

BD:    You just do it for you?

Barto:    Mm-hm, just like Mishima.  He did it, too.  So what?  He was a great poet.  I just do it.

Yukio Mishima (三島 由紀夫 Mishima Yukio) is the pen name of Kimitake Hiraoka (平岡 公威 Hiraoka Kimitake, January 14, 1925 – November 25, 1970), a Japanese author, poet, playwright, actor, and film director. Mishima is considered one of the most important Japanese authors of the 20th century. He was nominated three times for the Nobel Prize in Literature and was poised to win the prize in 1968 but lost the award to his fellow countryman Yasunari Kawabata. His avant-garde work displayed a blending of modern and traditional aesthetics that broke cultural boundaries, with a focus on sexuality, death, and political change. He is remembered for his ritual suicide by seppuku after a failed coup d'état attempt, known as the "Mishima Incident".

The Mishima Prize was established in 1988 to honor his life and works.

In 1955, Mishima took up weight training, and his workout regimen of three sessions per week was not disrupted for the final 15 years of his life. In his 1968 essay Sun and Steel, Mishima deplored the emphasis given by intellectuals to the mind over the body. He later also became very skilled at kendo, traditional Japanese swordsmanship.  Mishima was featured as a photo model in Young Samurai: Bodybuilders of Japan and Otoko: Photo Studies of the Young Japanese Male by Tamotsu Yatō. American author Donald Richie gave a short lively account of Mishima, dressed in a loincloth and armed with a sword, posing in the snow for one of Yatō's photoshoots

BD:    If you’re walking down the street and someone sees Mr. America, does it surprise them when you tell them you’re a pianist?

Barto:    Yes.  Then they’re just as guilty as the conservative classical listeners who would say I can’t be that big and play a tender nocturne of Chopin.  On the streets they’ll say, [snidely] “Oh, yeah?  You’re a pianist?  Well I’m a rocket scientist!”  [Huge laugh]  Sometimes I just don’t even say what I do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned that you play about one hundred concerts a year.  Do you get enough time to practice, to learn new repertoire, and still be with your wife and child?

Barto:    Absolutely.  I take off two months in the summer.  July and August I’ll be at home, and we travel together because I don’t like to travel alone.  I like to watch my son’s progress in growing up, so we’re going to home school him.  We started a method that’s used in some schools.  We’re going to use this method and see how it goes.

BD:    Are you going to encourage him to go into performing, or keep him the hell away from performing?

Barto:    He has a little upright because I thought he might feel a little intimidated working at a big nine-foot grand in the house.  So we got him his own little Steinway upright for his room.  But so far it hasn’t really appealed to him so much.  What he loves to do at the moment is painting. 

barto BD:    So you’ll encourage that?

Barto:    Yes, but I’ll encourage whatever he wants to do.

BD:    So if he wants to be a football player or a rocket scientist, no matter what you’ll encourage him?

Barto:    Absolutely.  Those times are gone where the father more or less controlled what the son was going to do with this life.  That’s basically gone these days, especially in America.

BD:    Of course, you can’t really hand him the family business. [Laughs]

Barto:    No.  No.  [Laughs]  That’s true.

BD:    Do you wish that you could travel with your own Steinway?

Barto:     On the one hand it would make life a lot easier in some respects but not in others because there’s also the transport that’s involved.  You also have to have the same technician with the piano all the time.  I’ve had a piano which was destroyed by KLM while being brought over to Orlando.  They just stuck a lifting fork in it and it was totally destroyed.  So I wouldn’t want my baby, my piano, having those risks about it all the time.  It’s a challenge to work with different pianos, to go on stage and have a real stiff one or a really light one, but it’s fun, and I think it’s better for the muscles and for the psychology of the artist to get used to different pianos.  Also, different pianos can do different things, so that’s fun, too.  Sometimes you can do different effects with a piece that you wouldn’t be able to do before or after.

BD:    Do you ever look at it the other way?  Do you ever wish that you could bring home the piano you found in Topeka because it had something special?

Barto:    Yes, and very often, when you come back it’s just not the same anymore.  You wonder, “Did I sentimentalize a little bit?”

BD:    Do you ever wish that you were a violinist so you could take your instrument with you, or a vocalist so it was always with you?

Barto:    No, because I love the violin and I love singing, but at the piano we can do the same effects as on the violin, and we can do the same effects as a singer, and as a dancer, and as an actor.  Just like I’m sure the violin is for them and the voice is for them, and rightly so, the piano is a cosmos for me, and I’ve rationalized why this is.  It has everything in it.  There is a whole orchestra at my disposal, and it has the biggest range of any instrument, and I love that.

BD:    Did you ever play any other instruments at all
— for instance the organ or harpsichord?

Barto:    At school, of course.  I ran away to Paris when I was fourteen because I taught myself French with a Belgian countess in central Florida.  I was really dying to speak French and my father wouldn’t let me go.  So one day I stole his credit card and I took off with my girlfriend.  We faked her passport with my mom’s passport and they sent me back.  Interpol found me in London, so I never even made it to Paris.  So to pay my father back for this trip, I had to play in places like pizza parlors and funeral homes, behind that dark glass in a room where the organist can see out but they can’t see the organist.  [Laughs]  I had to play one of those wheezing, vibrato-filled organs right at the head of the corpse, which to this day is why I don’t really care for flowers.  Every day I had to see these flowers together with death right in front of me.  Then I had to play for churches, too.  Choir practice, Sunday Schools, little toddlers’ choirs, all sorts of things, to pay my dad back over the course of a year and a half.  So that’s when I played organ.  Then in school I played in the high school band, which in the region where I grew up we’re talking big time orange groves, so we didn’t have an orchestra.  People there didn’t even know what a violin was, so we only had winds.  I played the clarinet, and then I got really esoteric and played the bassoon for about four years.

BD:    Hah!  You’re looking at an old bassoon player, so that’s good.  Congratulations.

Barto:    Yes?  I loved it because I was the only one.  I never even made my reeds.  I was a real amateur, so I bought them.

BD:    Is your father pleased now with your career?

Barto:    Oh yes, he’s pleased as punch.  In fact, he’s coming up to Chicago for the concert.  But they even came when I played at Grant Park.  [Begun in 1935, Grant Park holds a series of free outdoor concerts in the summer, and the orchestra is now made up mostly of musicians from the Lyric Opera.]  Chicago has been very good to me.  When I was just starting out I played in Europe for about five years, which doesn’t mean automatically you get to play with the great orchestras in America, or on a great series of recitals.  Chicago gave me a venue right away, Grant Park, with a wonderful orchestra and wonderful conductors.  Then I went to Ravinia and made my debut with the Chicago Symphony, and also play downtown as is the case this week.  So, I must say, Chicago is like my best friend, but when you look at them historically, Chicago has been many people’s best friend who didn’t start out in Manhattan or on the west coast.  You gave Prokofiev a big chance, for example.

BD:    Absolutely.  He wrote an opera [Love of Three Oranges] and the Third Piano Concerto for us.

Barto:    I love the woman at the Lyric Opera [Ardis Krainik]!  I think she’s just the greatest. 

BD:    Yes, absolutely.  We all do.  She’s fabulous!  Then I guess we can expect you back in Chicago again and again?

Barto:    Sure.  I love it!

BD:    Good.  Thank you for coming, and thank you for chatting with me.

Barto:    My pleasure.


© 1996 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded backstage at Medinah Temple in Chicago on May 23, 1996.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2000, and on WNUR in 2004 and 2010.  This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.