Ipswich: World-renowned pianist Benjamin Grosvenor interviewed

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: Patrick Allen operamedia.co.uk

Pianist Benjamin Grosvenor. Photo: Patrick Allen operamedia.co.uk - Credit: Archant

Benjamin Grosvenor admits to having an average attraction to the piano when he first started playing. In fact, despite practicing he didn’t make that much progress at first. What motivated him in the end was peer pressure.

Benjamin Grosvenor with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Photo: Hong King Sinfonietta Lmtd

Benjamin Grosvenor with the Hong Kong Sinfonietta. Photo: Hong King Sinfonietta Lmtd - Credit: Archant

“Some friends at school started playing and I was spurred on to practice by the thought they might get better than me,” laughs the world renowned musician, who plays Ipswich’s Corn Exchange tomorrow night. “Gradually, as I got better I enjoyed it more.”

His piano teacher mother, who wanted her children to all learn instruments, can take some of the credit too.

“She enjoyed playing herself, she loved music... She made me aware of lots of instruments and said ‘which one would you like to play’. I chose the piano, I forget why. She was always teaching on it so I probably heard it an awful lot.”

His first experience of playing to the public, sealed the deal; giving realisation to what he was doing and making him see what being a concert pianist was all about.

“I really fell in love with the music and playing the piano for myself”.

Performing in a few festivals in and around his hometown of Southend aged eight or nine, a charity event at his local auditorium springs to mind says Grosvenor, who in 2011 Benjamin became the youngest ever pianist to sign with Decca, his debut disc winning two Gramophone awards, the critics’ choice Classical Brit award and a prestigious French Diapason D’or.

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“The auditorium was in darkness, the audience were there, I came on and played and... there’s something special about being able to connect with a lot of people through music. Sometimes when you’re playing the silence is something which strikes you, sometimes more than the applause at the end... those moments when you’ve got hundreds of people sitting there but it’s completely hush because the music is so mesmerising.”

Grosvenor first came to prominence when he played the Ravel Piano Concerto in the live televised final of the BBC Young Musician of the Year competition aged 11 having won the keyboard final.

Strangely, he suffered more nerves when he was older than he did then.

“It was the first piece I played with a professional orchestra... it’s interesting, it’s easier to do that kind of thing at 11 then it is later in your life. I was too young to feel the pressure of it all.

“I don’t remember feeling particularly nervous, I’d prepared the piece for a while and it was quite exciting to be playing it with a professional orchestra. If I entered a competition now I think I’d react more to the slightly unnatural environment of a competition than I did then,” says Grosvenor, who was looking forward to a month-long tour of America and Canada as well as making his Hong Kong debut when we spoke.

“[In] the last 10 years since that competition and as I got a little older, I began to get more nervous on stage. I went through a phase when I was 13-14 when I’d get very nervous before performances. It was good to be performing through that, I learnt how to deal with that and got over that.”

He still gets butterflies though.

“Yes, the good kind,” he laughs, adding without nerves, a performance can lack that special something. Thinking about the recordings of the pianists he admires most, most are of live performances.

“Even though you’re playing the same piece and it’s the same interpretation, sometimes it’s more difficult to capture the excitement in the studio because you don’t have the atmosphere there of a concert, you don’t have the audience there, the buzz that gives you.”

The first half of tomorrow’s varied programme is grounded in the 19th Century, centred around Schumann’s Humoreske. The second half starts with work by lesser-known composer-pianists Nikolai Medtner and Federico Mompou, closing with extravagant takes on the waltz by Ravel and Liszt.

“Liszt’s transcription from Gounod’s Faust brilliantly summarises the opera from which the music is taken; the orgiastic opening, the innocence of Marguerite’s song and the demonic nature of the virtuosic close,” says Grosvenor, who has been playing piano since he was six and picks out playing at the First Night of the Proms as the highlight so far.

When he’s putting a recital together, Grosvenor is always looking at expanding his repertoire, seeking out things he hasn’t played before.

“It’s a big piece I’m playing by Schumann. His Humoreske, which is about 25 minutes long, is one of his larger works and I hadn’t really done any of his big works before, just some smaller pieces, so I wanted to get my teeth into one of those.

“I chose this wonderfully emotive piece, [with its] kaleidoscope of emotions. He said when he was writing it he’d been sitting at the piano for a week, composing and writing and laughing and crying all at the same time – it’s got so much in it.

“I’m lucky in that I’m a pianist, as a pianist there’s so much written for the piano, so much that I couldn’t possibly get through it all in my lifetime,” he laughs. “[There’s so much that is not often played and somewhat neglected so I try to put things like that in my programmes when I can.”

Grosvenor, who’s off to Copenhagen, Fribourg and Hanover after his Ipswich recital, loves new and little heard composers whose distinctive voice and style he says needs to be heard.

“I hope the audience will enjoy those pieces in particular. Of course, if you’re programming unfamiliar works it’s best to put some more familiar works around it,” he laughs, “so we have in the second half Ravel and Listz.”

He’s looking forward to playing the Ipswich Corn Exchange tomorrow, Bury St Edmunds’ the apex on April 16 and particularly Southend’s Cliffs Pavilion on March 23.

“It’s going to be very nice to perform near to home. Sometimes I travel halfway across the world for concerts and it’s nice to be able to do something which is in my own county, or in the case of Southend a few minutes down the road, and play to my local crowd who are the people who supported me in the early stages of my career.”

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