Inon Barnatan named new SummerFest music director by La Jolla Music Society; takes the podium for 2019 season

Inon Barnatan will succeed Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin as the music director of the La Jolla Music Society’s 32-year-old SummerFest.

Barnatan’s initial contract to head SummerFest is for 20 months, with an option to extend to 32 months. His salary was not disclosed.

A native of Israel, Barnatan, 37, began playing piano at the age of 3 and made his orchestral debut when he was 11.

Barnatan’s collaborators have ranged from famed choreographer Mark Morris and actor John Malkovich to the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Tokyo Metropolitan Orchestra.

Here’s the full story:

Acclaimed pianist Inon Barnatan has been chosen by the La Jolla Music Society to succeed Cho-Liang “Jimmy” Lin as the music director of SummerFest, the nonprofit arts organization’s annual August chamber-music festival. The Israeli-born, New York-based Barnatan will be only the fourth SummerFest music director in the event’s 32-year history.

Barnatan, 38, will take over in 2019 from Lin, 58, who will conclude his 18th year heading SummerFest on Aug. 31. Barnatan’s first season in his new position will coincide with next spring’s opening of the society’s new, $78 million Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center in La Jolla.

“Inon has always been thought of extremely highly by Jimmy, as well as our audience,” said Leah Rosenthal, the society’s Director of Artistic Planning & Education.

“Not only is Inon an amazing soloist and chamber player, he’s an amazing collaborator, on and off the stage, and a wonderful administrator. And that’s key to being SummerFest’s music director — to work well with the staff and have a shared vision.”

Barnatan made his SummerFest debut as a performer in 2012. He lived in his native Israel until he was 16, then moved to London to study at the Royal Academy of Music. He relocated to New York a decade later and has earned rave reviews around the world for his dazzling instrumental command and deeply felt performances of both traditional classical repertoire and contemporary pieces.

In 2014, Barnatan was named the New York Philharmonic’s first-ever Artist-in-Association, a post he held for three years. Following his appointment in 2014, the philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert, hailed Barnatan as “the complete artist: a wonderful pianist, a probing intellect, passionately committed, and a capable contemporary-music pianist as well.”

In a Feb. 7 interview at the society’s La Jolla offices, the slender musician sounded both elated and honored to succeed Lin at the helm of SummerFest.

“I will have nothing to do with the 2018 season, which is a celebration of Jimmy’s 18 years here, and I’m sure he will be daunting to follow,” Barnatan said.

“He’s been so incredible at his job, and is such a wonderful guy and musician, that it’s intimidating and also humbling to follow him. But Jimmy left such a great groundwork — and with the people that are working here and the audiences that love coming to SummerFest, I feel it will be much easier for me to step in.”

That said, Barnatan readily acknowledges that taking the helm of the festival is not a role he had previously contemplated.

“Being music director here was not really on my radar, because I’m so busy,” he noted. “But, as soon as the idea came up, I realized how many of my interests come together in this position and how much excitement I got out of thinking of the different possibilities, both musical and nonmusical.

“Chamber music has always been in some ways central to me. Whether I was playing with orchestras, playing solo or with smaller ensembles, it’s always been the basis of my ideas about music — collaboration that involves listening, interaction and curiosity. And, for me, this basically brings all of these things together.”

Barnatan flew back to New York Thursday morning. He will return to La Jolla in March, April and May to perform in the society’s three-concert “Swan Song” series. It will feature the later works of Franz Schubert, a composer whose music Barnatan has an especially strong affinity for performing. He selected the music and the performers who will join him for the concerts.

“This is an early prelude to my becoming SummerFest music director,” he said. “I’ve always enjoyed curating and programming, and Schubert has been one of my passions for a long time. So I created this three-concert series focusing on one of the most miraculous years to ever happen in musical history — the last year of Schubert’s life, between when Beethoven died (in 1827) and Schubert died (in 1828) at the age of 31.

“Schubert wrote some of the most miraculous masterpieces … so that in itself is one of the most rich musical experiences you can have as a player and listener, to play and hear to these pieces in succession and track them. I’m thrilled to come here, over three months, and present these different concerts — with pieces that are all from 1828 — with some of my favorite Schubert musicians. And, in addition to the concerts, we’ll be having these ‘Schubertiads,’ intimate Schubert chamber-music parties, where the audience will hang out with us.”

Barnatan’s new role at SummerFest will help provide stability for the La Jolla Music Society, which last month saw the surprise resignation of Kristin Lancino, its president and artistic director, barely two years after she had come on board. Her successor has not yet been named.

“I wasn’t aware of what was going on here behind the scenes,” said Barnatan, who spoke with excitement about next year’s opening of the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, SummerFest’s new home.

“I really hope I can preserve the festival’s sense of family,” he said. “And I would love to be able to create a sense of excitement, where both the performers and the audience are thinking about what’s going to happen with excitement and anticipation. My hope is that every single moment in the festival is going to be memorable and special.”

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