What's in a name?
Pianist on a break: Just call him Barto
(CNN) -- "That's good. You didn't call me 'Tiz-man.'"
Hours before he bows to adamant applause on the stage of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, Tzimon Barto seems not to be giving Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 a thought. His animated, laughing conversation bounces from subject to subject more as it might when he's working out back, at home in Florida. You'd never know he's in New York on the serious business of his solo debut with the New York Philharmonic.
"I'm actually Johnny Barto Smith Jr.," he's saying with a giggle and a "how amazing is that?" shrug. "Adele Marcus gave me 'Tzimon,'" when he was studying piano with the celebrated Juilliard School instructor. And Tzimon Barto has been trying to get people to call him Tzimon -- it rhymes with the women's name "Simone" -- ever since.
"You know," he says, "the amazing thing is that once I'd put it on a poster because Adele told me to, she called me up and said, 'I was just kidding.' But it was too late. I was Tzimon.
"Now, I'm trying to phase out Tzimon and just going to go by one name -- Barto. Only maybe it's pretentious. Don't want to sound that way."
On stage in a Saturday night concert with the Philharmonic under Christoph Eschenbach's direction, Barto is as much his own man at the piano as he is in an interview. No tie and tux for him: He wears his hair in a long ponytail down the back of a romantic white shirt, the kind of thing you imagine Lord Byron hanging out in.
And for all the power this bodybuilding pianist's workouts must give him, Barto plays with almost businesslike restraint. He hunches over his keyboard and bears down with surprisingly little flamboyance. As idiosyncratic as he may be offstage, Barto is a steady professional, not a showoff, at work.
'One eye closed'
"I took lessons from my grandmother first, in Eustis, Florida. I was raised a Southern Baptist, you know -- we were at church three times a week.
"The first music I ever heard was a hymn. And the first pianos I ever touched were in churches -- I'd be waiting for my parents to get out of a Bible class.
"I had such uneven teaching, you know. I went in for an interview at Rollins College and played Chopin waltzes, putting in octaves all over the place. I didn't know you weren't supposed to doll them up. This lady looked at me and said, 'Do you think you can improve on Chopin?' And I thought she meant, 'Do you think you can improve the way you play Chopin?' I said, 'Yes, I do.'
"So I was punished. I could already play Donizetti operas and Handel, but they had me playing C-major scales. I just bit the bullet and did it for three or four years. It might have even helped, who knows? But my major education early on was outside Florida -- in summers at Brevard and Tanglewood.
"When I told my dad I wanted to take ballet, he nearly hit me. Whenever I wanted to do a play in the community theater, he'd make a deal with me that I'd have to do one sport for every play. I'd hold out and end up in crummy baseball. The other kids hated me -- I was fat, kept to myself, didn't do sports unless I had to. Now, I go back to Eustis and look at my friends. They're fat, eating barbecue, and I'm the one doing the bodybuilding."
Barto, his wife Gesa and their 10-year-old son live on a ranch some 30 miles north of Orlando.
And as the kid ages, so does this mid-30s Dad. What's difficult about the Rachmaninoff he's playing? "The older I get with this piece, the more I have to pace myself. I used to come out with it like the sunshine in Mexico at 6 a.m. Now, I find that the more reasonable tempi I play, the more colors I find in the music. And Christoph and I have done this one so much -- even recorded it together -- that he could do it with one eye closed."
Another Barto bounce in the conversation: "Hey, do you know a restaurant in Charleston called Poogan's Porch?" Early in his career, Barto worked Charleston's Spoleto Festival USA. "They'd feed us in all the restaurants."
"My son is coming up with my wife this weekend. I think I'm going to take him to see Kodo (Drummers of Japan). And Gesa is a painter. We met in Germany" 11 years ago.
As Gesa moved from a marketing career to her painting, Barto says he wants to move closer to his writing -- poetry -- from music.
"My book, 'A Lady of Greek Origin,' is coming out this fall at the Frankfurt Bookfair. It's coming out in English and German. Poor woman in the book, her husband has divorced her, three children have died in a boating accident and she's a drug addict."
Barto stops for a moment. "I don't want this to sound like Pavarotti doing chalks or Prince Charles doing watercolors. So I've waited a long time. It's like a troubadour -- I want to do words and music. And you know, I do languages a lot. Lived in France for four years.
"I ran away to Paris when I was 15. Interpol found me and my girlfriend and turned us back; it was awful. My father was so mad he made me play funeral homes for a year to pay for it all. To this day, bouquets of flowers make me crazy. They bring them onstage, I turn green.
"You know how it is in the South at a funeral home, you play the organ behind that tinted glass. So I could play in T-shirts and jeans and nobody could see me. But it did give me this 'flower problem.'"
Barto, off on another laughing jag, heads back to rehearse the Rachmaninoff with the orchestra. "We have to go, I could keep talking like this for an hour and they want me to play this thing."
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