So intent on communicating the music to the audience, pianist Inon Barnatan's eyebrows did jumping jacks as he mouthed unwritten lyrics to Johannes Brahms' "Piano Concerto No. 2" on Saturday night at the Alberta Bair Theater.
Barnatan was possessed by the music during the opening-night concert with the Billings Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Anne Harrigan. And with a solo by principal cellist David Heinzen, Barnatan created a musical moment in the third movement of the work that made it feel like time stood still.
French horn player John Dutton opened the concerto, performing a haunting solo melody, which was then picked up by the piano. It was a seductively subtle entrance into the iconic work.
Even for those of us who couldn't see Barnatan's hands strike the keys, his body language spoke of a man filled with music.
Known for his flawless technique and insightful interpretation, Barnatan brings something else to his performance — a rare soulfulness that can't be taught or practiced.
Barnatan has made such a strong impression on the American music scene since moving to New York City from Israel in 2006 that he was awarded a prestigious Avery Fisher Career Grant in 2009.
The concerto he performed is also rare because it is a full symphony, known by the nickname of Brahms' 5th Symphony, Harrigan told the audience before the finish of the first half.
"When you listen to Brahms, imagine you are in the Alps or on the Beartooth Pass. Listen to the different colors and sounds," Harrigan instructed.
The work creates its own landscape, one that is inventive and sentimental.
The evening opened on a much lighter note with the orchestra performing Gioachino Rossini's "Overture to the Italian Girl in Algiers" and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "Symphony No. 35 (Haffner)."
Rossini's work evokes the rhythm of wind gusts, then settles into a cheerful romp just right for a Rossini comedic opera.
The Mozart work is both noble and playful as it leaps from octave to octave, which is one reason why the BSO has now performed in three times, the last time in 1988.
The next BSO concert is Oct. 15. It features Aaron Copland's "Billy the Kid — Ballet Suite" and BSO intern Rosie Weiss on violin performing Mark O'Connor's "Strings and Threads Suite."