Benjamin Grosvenor interview/review: Pianist’s poetic intensity

An interview with the British piano prodigy and review of his first Portland Piano International recital.

by JANA GRIFFIN

Editor’s note: Our crack team of ArtsWatch piano enthusiasts double-teamed 22-year-old piano prodigy Benjamin Grosvenor’s concerts for Portland Piano International last week at Portland State University. ArtsWatch’s Jana Griffin spoke to the rising British star, and her review of his Sunday recital follows their interview. ArtsWatch’s Jeff Winslow reviewed Grosvenor’s Monday recital for ArtsWatch, too.

 OAW: What makes a great pianist?

Benjamin Grosvenor: You get a sense that the great pianists have their own quality of sound. You can often tell it’s a particular pianist playing by listening to the rubato and the particular timing they use within passages. It’s tricky to describe, but for example, Jorge Bolet has this wonderfully burnished tone; it’s quite a thick sound at the piano, warm and rounded. but the way they choose the voicing and they also had a particular sound in their head when they came to the piano. You get a sense from some pianists that they have their own individual sound and this quality, along with timing and rubato, are issues that are incredibly personal and distinctive.

OAW: Can you talk about the piano as a percussive instrument?

It’s very interesting this idea that the piano is a percussion instrument. As a pianist one has to be a master of illusion because you have to use the pedal and other effects to give the impression that it’s not an instrument on which the sound instantly decays. From the great pianists, you get a sense that the playing is less vertical. They use particular techniques which help open up the texture of the piano and help to voice notes. For example, one reason singing is so colorful is because words have consonants and vowel sounds, and the pianist Raymond Lewenthal compared a-synchronization of the hands, splitting the left hand from the right hand, to a singer putting consonants before words.

BenjaminGrosvenor. Photo: Operaomnia.co.uk.

BenjaminGrosvenor. Photo: Operaomnia.co.uk.

OAW: You seem to have a scientific approach to learning pieces, but at the same time you play very poetically.

One has to craft things. It’s interesting having played from a very young age because at the beginning I did a lot of things instinctively. I mean, you can of course just sit down and play a piece and let it wash over you. But a piece with a large scale form has an architecture that requires a lot of thought as to how you are going to craft it. You have to think quite scientifically, but then afterwards, through the practicing of a piece and writing lots of things on the page, you come to the concert and want to try to have a blank slate with it. And in the moment of the performance you go with it, having already laid the groundwork.

OAW: What do your scores look like after you’ve learned a piece?

I tend to write quite a lot in the score when I work, and then I don’t rub enough of it out so my scores look a complete mess. Actually with most of the pieces I’ve done, if I picked up the score I probably wouldn’t be able to understand half of the things I wrote, but at one point they were applicable.

OAW: What makes a convincing performance?

What is convincing is a matter of opinion. A pianist who has a good sense of architecture but doesn’t have the ability to conjure the right kind of coloristic color from the keyboard is not going to be a fine musician. Also, one can aim to be clean, but at the end of the day if you’re playing very cleanly and there’s no emotional impact in the playing then it’s not a satisfying performance.

OAW: How do you maintain focus?

It’s hard. On a tour like this for a number of days you have a concert, then you travel the next day, then you try to practice in the evening, and then you have another concert the next day. It’s not always easy and some concerts you’ll be more focused than others, especially when you have a number of concerts in a row. It’s hard to maintain the focus, but it’s about getting your mind in a state where you can just be in the moment that you’re in.

OAW: Do you have a pre-concert routine?

Thirty minutes before a concert, if I have a piano backstage, I’ll sit down and play passages from the music slowly and go through the pieces checking things. Then when I have about five minutes before, I don’t play. I try not to think about the music and practice deep breathing before I go on stage.

OAW: What happens when you just can’t focus?

Your focus can’t always be as you would like it to be. There’s a sketch from Little Britain, the TV series, involving a concert pianist. He’s onstage playing something and then he turns to the audience and says, “Oh! What kind of sorbet should I have today?” and then he’s playing something else and says, “Oh, I had a bag! Where’s my bag?” There’s a danger, especially when you’ve been playing pieces for awhile, that things become very automatic and at times like that you can find odd things popping into your head. Obviously, that’s not an ideal state to be in. The ideal state is to be immersed in the music and follow every idea through.

When I can’t focus, I find at that point what I really need to do is sit down and practice the pieces in quite a thorough way; maybe go through them with the score away from the piano just to make myself more alert and focused to every aspect of the music and try to make it conscious again. It can slip too easily and become too automatic, too subconscious

OAW: What do you do to relax?

I really enjoy swimming, though I haven’t gotten a chance to do that lately. I also enjoy reading and just finished A Short History of the World by H.G. Wells. It’s a very funny book, and I liked it very much.

OAW: What challenges do you face as a pianist right now?

Making every note of practice count is something I find challenging. Having goals set out before I start practicing, practicing in a very efficient way because on a tour there’s not much time to practice. I only have small windows of time to accomplish my goals. The challenge is to make the most of small amounts of time.

OAW: What keeps you playing?

The desire to improve and get better. There’s an ideal that I am shooting for.

Sunday’s Recital: Poetic Intensity

A wild hare hops nimbly by the edge of the forest. Suddenly, it stops. Freezes. Every muscle taut, ears up, nose flared. But the eyes. The eyes are darting every which way, pinpointing the threat. That’s how the 22-year old British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor appeared as he sat at the piano for his Portland debut Sunday afternoon as the penultimate performer in Portland Piano International’s 2014/2015 season. His back, tense and alert, hardly moved; his neck, bent 90 degrees, angled his face down to the keys. His jaw, tight; his lips, unmoving. But his eyes. They were wide, focused, darting faster than his fingers, aiming each glance like an arrow piercing his fingers into position.

Intense? Definitely.

In the opening piece, French Baroque composer Jean-Philippe Rameau’s Gavotte and Variations in A minor (1729-30), Grosvenor carefully nestled each melodic tone into the thicket of harpsichord textures made even gnarlier by the resonating capacity of the grand piano. His fingers sang the melody like a Baroque countertenor: caressing and supple, but in charge of the musical line; this is no small task as the melody line jumps across multiple registers. Because the singing melody is in charge of the line, the pianist must focus primarily on taming the frolicking harmonies into a supportive structure that is clean, quiet, and crisp. Grosvenor has referred to the Rameau as “amuse-bouche” but his acute attention to this balance of melody and harmony elevated the Rameau to main course stature.

Busoni’s virtuosic transcription of Bach’s Violin Chaconne requires multiple hand crossings, and Grosvenor’s darting eyes dictated that his hands and arms move like claw machines. His focus on methodical movement translated into a performance that relentlessly guided the melodic lines through their Bachian maze. Slower variations rose from the tornado of the one before, and one could sense what PPI Artistic Director Arnaldo Cohen called Grosvenor’s miraculous sound of the Golden Age. Grosvenor’s turns, while incredibly fast, did more than display his virtuosic facility, providing a quick lilt into the next beat, which served to buy more time for the next phrase to grow.

Grosvenor finally closed his eyes in Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue. Composed after a forty year hiatus from piano solo music, Franck’s piece explores spiritual trauma and healing. This piece seemed to suit Grosvenor best. He took his time to transform the plodding motif of descending fourths into starlight. Also, whereas the Rameau piece suffered at the end from an over-blending of inner voices, the cacophony of sound at the end of the Franck and Grosvenor’s weightier attention to the middle voices felt more appropriate to the Romantic texture.

Grosvenor has been called a poet of sound, and on Sunday, the poetry particularly emerged in his pedaling. Grosvenor used full, half, and quarter depression of the una corda pedal (the soft pedal on the far left) which helped not just in creating paler tone colors, but also in evoking an expansive sense of distance. This technique was not as effective in the waltzes that comprised the second half of his program, particularly in Enrique Granados’ Poetic Waltzes (1887), mainly because the una corda pedal reinforced a sense of loneliness and introversion that perhaps is not desired in music associated with couples dancing together.

The second half also featured waltzes composed by Ravel and Scriabin, all music from Grosvenor’s latest Decca album, Dances. Grosvenor himself has admitted he’s not much of a dancer, and there was very little flip of the heel or swish of the dress. There was a lot of stillness, a lot of waiting for colors to warm or pale and then blend before turning the corner. Scriabin’s Waltz op. 38 (1903)  turned surprisingly aggressive by the end, as if the dancers grew angry from stepping on each other’s toes one too many times. Finally, Adolf Schulz-Evler’s silly, though incredibly difficult, arrangement of Johann Strauss’ Blue Danube (1904) waltz suffered not for lack of virtuosity but for lack of humor. At the first few bars the audience chuckled in recognition but quickly piped down as Grosvenor proceeded with his very serious performance. So many chords are meant to poise cheekily in the air before prancing on down the river; instead, laughing motives turned into serious ponderings, and sparkling fairies dulled into smoky hazes.

Grosvenor seemed exhausted by the end of the concert, smiling in decline at the first call-back and then coming back on stage the second time to oblige an encore. His encore was Spanish composer Federico Mompou’s haunting The Fountain and the Clock (1942), a piece that cries softly before ending with an innocent question. A mystical piece, it speaks of lost memories returning and forges memories of things yet to happen, summing up Grosvenor’s overall approach to the second half: a solitary exploration of sweet nostalgia.

As Arnaldo Cohen stated, there is no doubt Grosvenor is among the elite of this century’s pianists. His conception of sound and focused performance will only become richer with time; while a humble fellow in conversation, he cares intensely about every tone produced by his fingertips.

Jana Griffin is a Portland pianist and piano teacher.

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