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Benjamin Grosvenor – pianistic old world mastery with youthful projection

Despite having been featured on just about every major music magazine’s cover, Benjamin Grosvenor’s performances in the United States remain sparingly sprinkled, infrequent events, perhaps due to a deliberately precautious move by Hazard Chase International Music Management, who has guided Grosvenor’s skyrocketing career since age 14. (Photo: Lauire Lewis, The Guardian)

His admirably clear and spontaneous-sounding interpretations astound audiences anew with each performance, justifying his already wide European following, which was evident when he opened the 2011 BBC-Proms at age 19, playing for a sold-out Royal Albert Hall, and signing on to the prestigious Decca label as the youngest, and first British artist on their label in sixty years.

In New York, the young English chap, who modestly appeared in pants and black shirt at his Frick Collection debut last year, captivated a select audience with his very personal and sensitive, yet highly virtuosic performance. His playing, technically brilliant, was illustratively imaginative, and his interpretations showed a mature musicianship well beyond his years.

This summer, on July 26, Grosvenor performed at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts with the National Symphony Orchestra for an enormously large audience at this year’s Wolf Trap Summer Festival.

During rehearsal the day before, at Washington’s Kennedy Center with Christopher Eschenbach’s orchestral assistant director, Ankush Kumar Bahl, Grosvenor made the expressive lead in Rachmaninov’s Second Piano Concerto his own. One could not help but be reminded of RCA’s recording of the same concerto by the young Evgeny Kissin with Valery Gergiev, due to its similarly effective projection of this effervescent highlight of romanticism.

In conversation, Grosvenor exhibits a view of pianism, which further reminds in some ways of Russian pianist Evgeny Kissin, twenty years his senior. It is the utmost individualistic approach that underlies the reverence to the composer at hand, which, embraced by both pianists, puts both of them into the distinct line of heritage of the so-called Golden Age of the piano, as they each produce idiosyncratic, yet definite sound worlds. Both pianists’ mothers were piano teachers, both grew up around music and were utterly natural and uninhibited at the piano while performing at a very young age. Both only realized the piano’s pitfalls and difficulties, and developing a more self-conscious awareness of what goes into performing, later on during adolescence.

Grosvenor discretely experienced bouts of stage fright, which was partially overcome by his then new-found love for chamber music performances, which made it possible to share the impact of the stage. Kissin, on the other hand, distinguishes between “good and bad nerves,” the former turned good only by intense preparation.  Both mention how they enjoy “being in control of everything” during their solo recitals, while the concerto performances with orchestras still play a large role within the classical repertoire they perform. Both love their audiences, are eager to see them up close, and connect to them on a personal level, enjoy their touring practice, and communicate through a charismatic stage presence that is neither demure nor arrogant, but rather matter-of-fact.

“My favorite trip so far was to Rio de Janeiro in 2006,” says Grosvenor, “I felt I was really able to connect with the people, they were so enthusiastic and I found the atmosphere, the different culture very appealing.” He has also enjoyed performing in churches, commonly chosen by music societies and summer festivals in England, as alternative venues to concert halls.  “It is the intimate atmosphere of a church, often away from a big city, that appealed to me,” he says. (Photos: Ilona Oltuski )

The film titled Imagine: Being a Concert Pianist, by Julian Strand, shows 11-year-old Grosvenor as the outstanding keyboard finalist of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition. Already at this stage, the film places him in the company of prodigal piano greats, including Kissin among others.

Not unlike the close-knit Kissin family, Grosvenor’s family, in the interest of self-preservation, was wary to avoid an excessive performance schedule in order to grant the seemingly eager, if awkwardly-portrayed participant in the film, a somewhat ‘normal’ upbringing. Normal, at least within the specific boundaries of a not-so-normal occupation, which famously takes some of its best contenders at such a young age, when, compared to their peers, their achievements and capacities show with amazing discrepancy. Well aware of the potential drawbacks of the prodigal factor, which could often be limiting to the sound development of the growing professional musician, the family kept the youngest of their five children, their Benjamin, as close to home as possible. This meant traveling together, mostly with his mother, who was present at the latest Washington rehearsal. “Not as much anymore, now though,” adds Grosvenor, “which is my choice.”

On his recent, last tour to Singapore, Grosvenor managed on his own, “provided the excellent arrangements of my management…One day I will have to do it alone anyway,” he says. By now, his schedule has become increasingly busy and with 76 concerts a year, some of them spread out during tours that afford much traveling time, he spends much less time at home in Essex’s Southend- On- See, a large town about an hour’s drive east of London, where he enjoys a quieter surrounding. “London is too hectic for me,” he says. Even while completing his degree at London’s Royal Academy of Music with his mentor Christopher Elton, he commuted, and he still does about once a week play for his former teacher, and also Daniel-ben Pienaar at the Royal Academy of Music, whom he names as his biggest musical influence besides Elton.

Pienaar possesses a particular interest in early music and, the Viennese classics, and early Romantics; his Diabelli Variations recording just made “recording of the week” with the London Times. Grosvenor himself would love to include more contemporary compositions into his programs, which, while heavily centered on the Romantics, still aim to offer a broadened view of the spectrum of repertoire. A matter of time, perhaps…

After the summer break, Benjamin Grosvenor’s impressive concert schedule is: Konzerthaus Berlin on Septmeber 8th; Paris Salle Gaveau, October 11th; London Wigmore Hall, October 14th; Detroit Symphony Orchestra October 25th-27th; Boston Celebrity Series, November 5th; Het Concertgebouw November 16h.  The program will include: Mendelssohn’s Rondo Capriccio Op.14; Schubert’s Impromptu Op.90, No. 3.; Schumann’s Humoreske; Mompou’s Paisajes; Medtner’s Two Fairy Tales Op. No.3 and Op.14, No.2; Ravel’s Valses Nobles et Sentimentales; and Gounod/Liszt’s Valse de Faust.

New Yorkers will have to wait until 2014, for his Zankel Hall recital, but pianophiles will know that it is not to be missed!



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