Sharp, shocking, Barto puts 'play' back into piano

February 27, 1994|By Stephen Wigler | Stephen Wigler,Sun Music Critic

This is the story of how Johnny Barto Smith Jr., from Eustis, Fla., became Tzimon Barto, the world-famous pianist.

You can find Barto's discs, with their cover art of the good-looking pianist, at any record store. There are plenty of them -- nine since 1987, when the prestigious EMI label began recording the then-obscure 24-year-old pianist.

But if Barto's well-known, he's also a little weird -- at least, the playing on his records sometimes is. Barto, who performs Rachmaninov's Third Concerto on Friday and Saturday evening with the Annapolis Symphony, is to the performance of music what deconstructionist critics are to the reading of literature: He can make the most familiar piece of music sound unfamiliar.

Barto stands many of Chopin's preludes on their figurative heads -- playing the B-flat Minor Prelude, for example, in a clipped manner that makes its inexorable tragic drive sound almost flippant. Then there's his performance of Rachmaninov's G Minor Prelude, which recalls not such traditional interpreters as Horowitz or Richter, but suggests instead the campy Liberace. And his recording of Gershwin's jazz-influenced "Rhapsody in Blue" is so deliberately dirty that it makes it sound almost like rhythm 'n' blues.

"Lots of people have gotten so intellectual that they lose a sense of the divine entertainment that playing involves," Barto says. "They forget that it's called 'playing' for a reason. It's sport with personality, cultivation and taste."

There's no doubt Barto can play the piano. His technique is prodigious; he produces an unfailingly lovely sound, and his performances can be as engaging as they can be infuriating.

And he's as fearless in programming as in interpretation, daring to perform both books of Bach's "Well Tempered Clavier" in consecutive evenings, or all 12 of Liszt's "Transcendental Etudes" in one.

Johnny Barto Smith Jr. became Tzimon Barto in his last year at the Juilliard School.

"I may be dumb, but I'm not stupid," he practically coos. "I knew that someone named Smith would never get anywhere in music."

He came up with the name over the course of an evening with his famed teacher, Adele Marcus. He wanted to be "Barto" because he had been called that since he was a child.

"They called my dad 'Johnny' and me 'Barto,' " says the pianist, who after several years of residence in Paris now lives with his second wife and their 18-month-old son in the central Florida hamlet of Eustis. "But it took me and Madame Marcus from 6 in the evening until 11 to come up with a first name. At first she suggested "Yussela" [the Yiddish diminutive for "Joseph"] -- then she looked at me and said, 'You don't look Jewish!' Somehow she settled on 'Tzimon.' "

Barto is one of the few students of Marcus -- who also taught such celebrated pianists as Byron Janis and Horacio Gutierrez -- who actually seems to like her. Marcus, now in her middle 80s, alienated most of them because of her infamous temper tantrums and imperial manner, not to mention her intimidating flirtatiousness. She also had a tendency to keep students

practically captive in her apartment for hours after their lessons had ended.

"I loved her," Barto says. "Teaching for her was performance. I loved the theatrics, the paradox and the hypocrisy. It's all part of what we [performers] do."

Everything for Barto -- including speaking on the telephone -- seems to be performance. A question on how he met his mentor, the influential German pianist-turned-conductor Christoph Eschenbach, turns into the spiritual autobiography of a multitalented Juilliard student who didn't know whether he wanted to be a pianist, an opera coach or a conductor.

In what was supposed to be his next-to-last year at Juilliard (it turned out to be his final one), Barto so impressed Gian Carlo Menotti that the composer invited him to be a conductor at his arts festival in Spoleto, Italy.

"But I was very distraught when I went to Spoleto," Barto says. "Juilliard had just sent me a letter saying that I had to choose what I wanted to do -- and that I had only a year to do it."

It was at Spoleto in that summer of 1985 that Barto met Eschenbach, whom the pianist describes as "my knight in shining armor."

As a young man, Eschenbach had been considered the greatest pianist Germany had produced since World War II. After turning to conducting in the late 1970s, Eschenbach, now 53 and music director of the Houston Symphony, quickly became one of the most prominent conductors of his generation. When Barto met him, he was music director of Zurich's Tonhalle Orchestra, perhaps the best orchestra in Switzerland.

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