Tzimon Barto: An unconventional pianist, philosopher, reformed drug addict

American original: Barto is a favorite of NSO conductor Eschenbach.
American original: Barto is a favorite of NSO conductor Eschenbach. (Roberto Gonzalez)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 16, 2011; 12:00 AM

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, piratelike 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 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 body-building, 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-to-earth - 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.)

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