Israeli piano prodigy Tom Borrow will stop at Cal Performances on his world tour, Oct. 1, 2023 (Photo/Michael Pavia)
Israeli piano prodigy Tom Borrow will stop at Cal Performances on his world tour, Oct. 1, 2023 (Photo/Michael Pavia)

‘Incandescent’ Israeli concert pianist Tom Borrow, just 22, to perform in Berkeley amid world tour

Tom Borrow needs just one hand to count his trips to the United States so far, including his upcoming visit to the Bay Area. But he’ll need both to open the 2023-24 season at Cal Performances.

The 22-year-old Israeli-British pianist will make his Berkeley debut on Oct. 1 with a recital featuring pieces by Debussy, Chopin, Rachmaninoff and Prokofiev.

Borrow, who was born in Tel Aviv to a British father and Israeli mother, didn’t come from a family of musicians. But his parents, both music lovers, kept a substantial collection of recordings he listened to growing up in Israel. By the time he was 5, he was studying piano under Michal Tal at the Givatayim Music Conservatory and later under Tomer Lev of the Buchmann-Mehta School of Music at Tel Aviv University.

Along with other promising young musicians, he was also invited to participate in workshops at the Jerusalem Music Centre with the renowned American pianist Murray Perahia, who became a mentor to Borrow starting in his teens.

In a phone interview from London, which has recently become his home base as he travels the world to perform, he said people often ask him when he knew music would become his professional path. He recalled playing with the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra at age 10, an opportunity he was afforded after winning a piano competition. The experience felt glamorous, he said, but most of all, “I remember definitely thinking to myself after that that this is something I would like to have with me for life.”

One of the most pivotal moments of his nascent career came in 2019, when he was still a teenager. Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili, who was scheduled to play a dozen concerts with the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, had to cancel at the last minute. Borrow got the call to fill in, barely two days in advance.

“The whole thing was a bit surreal,” he said. “I didn’t have the time to think it over too much, maybe thankfully.” It was the breakthrough that “shaped pretty much everything that came after.”

The impression he made playing Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major as a last-minute sub led to international invitations and appearances. He’d already won plenty of awards and accolades in Israel. He has since been named a BBC Next Generation Artist in 2021 and won the Terence Judd-Hallé Orchestra Award in 2023.

Borrow has played across Europe, as well as in São Paulo, Brazil. Two years ago, he made what classical music critic Zachary Lewis praised as a “sensational debut” in the U.S. with the Cleveland Orchestra. Playing Ravel again, Borrow “captured the spirit of the work and the heart of a sizable crowd in one fell swoop,” Lewis wrote. “In a world teeming with gifted pianists, Borrow stands out with a touch that’s both light and powerful, and supremely incandescent.”

The pianist described playing with the orchestra in Cleveland as an “absolutely phenomenal” experience. That was followed by appearances with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra in 2022 and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in January, playing concertos by Mozart and Beethoven, respectively.

Jeremy Geffen, Cal Performances’ executive and artistic director, said in an email that he is eager to introduce an “artist of such exceptional promise and extraordinary abilities” to a local audience, perhaps because of his own memorable introduction to Borrow’s playing.

His subtle changes in color, poetic phrasing, consummate command of the keyboard and profundity of expression leapt out.

“Nearly three years ago I was sent a live recording of a young Israeli pianist performing Ravel’s ‘Gaspard de la Nuit,’” Geffen said. “Even through the limits of my audio equipment, his subtle changes in color, poetic phrasing, consummate command of the keyboard and profundity of expression leapt out.” Since then, Geffen said, he has followed Borrow as he has “moved from strength to strength, gaining the acclaim of audiences and critics alike.”

Borrow’s trip to California will be his first, though he’s not sure if he’ll get to do much sightseeing outside of the 678-seat Hertz Hall.

“Usually I stop myself very quickly in indulging myself fantasizing [about] doing anything because, especially with these long flights, somehow time is not quite on my side,” he said. Still, if he does have free moments, he’s inclined to spend them in nature. “It’s important sometimes to breathe some fresh air in between things,” he said.

Regarding the program he’s selected for Berkeley, he said first and foremost that he loves every piece, though he acknowledges that this is true for every concert he plays. This one will start with shorter works, he said, and end with work on a grand scale.

“These are pieces I, of course, live with every day and study them as much as I can,” he said, adding that he wants to “share with others what I find quite miraculous about these pieces.”

“I love so many aspects in them,” he said. “So sometimes I feel that the goal is to just show the audience, ‘Oh wow look, look at this! Isn’t this amazing?’ Like, ‘I love this. Don’t you as well?’”

Tom Borrow: Cal Performances, 3 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1 at Hertz Hall on the campus of UC Berkeley. Tickets start at $72.

Stav Ziv

Stav Ziv is a journalist based in New York City whose work has also appeared in The Forward, Dance Magazine, The Atlantic, Newsweek, Newsday and the San Francisco Chronicle.