Rami Bar-Niv is known and beloved worldwide as one of Israel’s most acclaimed and sought-after pianists.
Performing worldwide as a soloist with orchestra, recitalist and chamber musician, Bar-Niv has become an ambassador of goodwill for Israel. He has made several well received recordings for CBS, many of his compositions have been published and recorded, and he is widely in demand as a teacher.
And we can all get to know him in depth and far more intimately, thanks to his recently published autobiography Blood, Sweat and Tours: Notes from the Diary of a Concert Pianist.
First Impressions: The Book
Unpacking the review copy of the book upon its arrival, my first thoughts were, “wow, this is big!”. In fact there are 240 pages, bound within a glossy soft cover, the impression of largesse owing much to the 21.59 x 27.94 cm (US Letter) format.
It is immediately clear that Blood, Sweat and Tours is Bar-Niv’s labour of love, and every aspect of the book screams quality. Most of the pages include at least one colour photograph, sometimes more than one, and it’s clear from the start that the book will provide an intimate and detailed portrait of its author’s eventful life and distinguished career.
The structure of the book is clearly developed from the extensive diaries that Bar-Niv has presumably kept over a lifetime, and during his 50+ years on the concert circuit. Following opening chapters covering his family heritage, birth and upbringing in Israel, there is a chapter for each year from 1968 to 2019, the year of the autobiography’s completion.
As the book progresses, the narrative is increasingly interspersed with chapters addressing the author’s thoughts on a range of topics such as composing, concert preparation, interpretation, reading music, health and fitness, car rides and driving, and even a chapter compiling his favourite musical jokes.
With such a detailed blow-by-blow account of his life, together with these insights into the practical philosophy Bar-Niv has amassed during a lifetime of globetrotting and successful professional experience, the book certainly answers a fundamental question:
Who is Rami Bar-Niv?
Bar-Niv was born in Tel-Aviv in December 1945, an infant delivered into a world of great upheaval following the end of the second world war.
The early chapters of the book detail how his family came to Israel having left behind the horrors of the Holocaust, in which his grandparents had been killed. In terse prose, Bar-Niv resurrects the hopes, despairs and solidarity of those challenging times. And against this vivid backdrop we encounter the young Rami, alive with growing passions for music, motorbikes and girls.
The first of these led to him studying at the Rubin Academy of Music in Tel-Aviv, and subsequently moving to America, where he studied with Nadia Reisenberg at the Mannes College of Music in New York.
We are treated to many insights into the personalities and culture of music in Israel, the US and elsewhere during these years, together with an account of Bar-Niv’s gradual ascent through the echelons of the classical performing world.
As the story unfolds, the years become something of a blur of information about the many world-class musicians Bar-Niv worked and collaborated with, his travels from one country to the next, and the gallery of friends he made wherever he went.
While some of this detailed information will be of most particular interest to Bar-Niv’s closest acquaintances, the narrative is never less than engaging, presenting us with a warm insight into the life of the touring musician: the hard work, many challenges, and more hard work involved in succeeding in such a highly competitive field.
Alongside this expanding account of a professional life, Bar-Niv shares his personal story: the loves, family, children, grandchildren, friends and colleagues whose stories are interwoven with his over many decades.
Bar-Niv shares consistently, but always gently, from the heart.
We glimpse the romance that led to his marriage to Andi in 1968, to whom he is still happily married five decades later. We are thrilled by the arrival of Shai, their firstborn son in 1971, later joined by a second son Tal, and much later in 1989 their daughter Sheli.
For those looking for the major milestones, the chapters with special headings stand out. Most movingly, these chapters include “The Real Hard Blow, 1986”, which recounts the sudden passing of Shai, aged just 15. Bar-Niv writes here with simplicity but immense poignancy, and the echoes of this tragedy inevitably reverberate in subsequent chapters.
But ultimately, as the book title hints, it’s the tours that overcome the tears, Bar-Niv’s relentless determination and well-deserved successes dominating the book. We become caught up with him in the whirlwind of concert engagements and travel which form the backbone both of a life well lived and a book well read.
We learn of his early adoption of the internet for promotional and creative purposes, discovering (were we not aware) that he had millions of listens on MP3.com in those pioneering days. Later, Bar-Niv shares the vision that led to the foundation of his popular “piano camps”, which have been such a nurturing blessing to many.
And on a personal level, we rejoice with him as Tal finds a wife, and as grandchildren join the Bar-Niv family.
In his late chapter Rants, Frustrations and Envies we catch a glimpse of the professional cost success can bring. Bar-Niv confides in his readers, without any trace of bitterness, that at times he has had to endure professional jealousy both online and in the physical world. Most remarkably, while Bar-Niv may have suffered from such small-minded squabbles, he doesn’t have a single bad word to say about anybody in this book.
Rami Bar-Niv is, without doubt, as warm-hearted and sincere in this book as he is successful in the musical world, and I found the read heartwarming and inspiring by turn.
Were such an in-depth autobiography the work of a lesser musician it might easily be considered an act of astonishing hubris; let there be no doubt then that Bar-Niv’s lifetime of musical experience and success more than justifies and positively demands the meaty account that we have here.
Indeed, here is a book which offers much wisdom, generous advice and deep insight into the world of the performing musician, one which deserves to grace the shelves of anyone interested in the world of classical music in the latter 20th and early 21st centuries, or for that matter considering a life in music.