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Israeli pianist Inon Barnatan sees strength in numbers

InBarnatan will perform recital Aug. 26 Ravinia. | Marco Borggreve

Inon Barnatan will perform in recital Aug. 26 at Ravinia. | Marco Borggreve

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♦ 6 p.m. Aug. 26

♦ Bennett Gordon Hall, Ravinia Festival, 200 Ravinia Park Rd., Highland Park

♦ Tickets, $10, reserved (no lawn sales)

♦ (847) 266-5100;

Updated: September 25, 2012 10:34AM

Today’s classical music world probably boasts more top-drawer piano soloists than ever before, but Inon Barnatan does not fear the competition. In fact, he doesn’t see it as competition at all.

“As I pianist, I feel we’re all so different,” the Israeli-born virtuoso said. “I never believed that if somebody is getting a concert, they’re getting a concert that could have been mine. Or vice versa. feel like if you do what you believe in and if you’re good enough, there will be a spot for you.”

Barnatan, 33, who returns Aug. 26 to the Ravinia Festival for a recital and appears Oct. 28 as part of the Symphony Center Presents Chamber Series, believes it is harmful for artists to look over their shoulders and worry about their counterparts’ success.

“I look at my friends and people who are doing well [in the field], and we are friendly with each other,” he said. “We feel like we actually get more out of learning from one another and collaborating than from cutting each other’s throats.”

Competition or not, the fast-rising soloist has little to fret. He has carved out a niche for himself with consistently intelligent, insightful playing and an uncommon appetite for new and unconventional works, often imaginatively interspersed on his programs with older classics.

This interplay of the old and new is evident on his latest album, “Darknesse Visible” (Avie Records). It mixes contemporary and classic French and English works that were all inspired by literary or other musical compositions and all display elements of both lightness and darkness.

In addition to works by Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, it includes Ronald Stevenson’s Fantasy on Benjamin Britten’s opera, “Peter Grimes,” and Thomas Ades’ 1992 piano adaptation of John Dowland’s 1610 song, “In Darkness Let Me Dwell.”

“I found it very interesting,” Barnatan said of the Ades piece, “how he can make something modern and fresh-sounding without changing a single note or rhythm from a song that was written 400 years ago.”

At Ravinia, the pianist will perform all but one of the works from the album as well as Franz Schubert’s Piano Sonata in A Major, D. 959, which contains what Barnatan describes as a “sense of smiling through tears.” Particularly standing out in the celebrated work, he said, is a moment in the second movement when the music descends into madness.

“Things stop making sense,” he said. “There are desperate cries and crashing chords that I think wouldn’t be out of place in anything written in this century — this primal howl. In an otherwise very open-hearted and positive piece, there is suddenly darkness visible.”

Barnatan’s Ravinia recital will be his first at the festival since a 2002 appearance as part of its “Rising Stars” series and his first since he moved to New York City in 2006 after nine years in London.

He had always wanted to live in the United States, but several events prompted him to make the jump across the ocean. Among them were gaining representation by a major New York manager and being selected for a three-year membership in the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center’s “CMS Two” program for emerging musicians.

“When all these things materialized, it seemed like a natural thing to do,” he said. “I’ve always found the States are very open and friendly, and somehow very accepting and very willing to listen with open ears.”

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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