Benjamin Grosvenor Sparks the S.F. Symphony Season Opener

Lisa Houston on September 2, 2014
Benjamin Grosvenor
Benjamin Grosvenor

Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major contains brash, virtuosic, and jazz-influenced elements that make it easy to love. And yet its beautiful adagio’s poignancy is such that you can almost hear the despair Ravel experienced when composing it. The wide range of demands this piece makes on the pianist may be a challenge for British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, but they will not be a novelty. After all, the 22-year-old musician played this concerto in his prize-winning performance at the BBC Young Musician’s competition in 2004, at the age of 11.

Since then his international concert career has surpassed even the great expectations that surrounded him, with acclaim for performances at the Kennedy Center, Wolf Trap, and other major venues, and by becoming the youngest musician to sign with Decca, as well as the first British pianist to sign with that label in 60 years. His performances at the BBC Proms, including the opening night concert in 2011, have helped to garner him what critics and audiences agree is well-earned success.

Grosvenor performs with the San Francisco Symphony Sept. 5 and Sept. 6, in the first regular concert of the season; the Russian triumvirate of Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, and Stravinsky are also on the bill.

One of the commentators at the Proms remarked about the fact that the young pianist showed “not a sign of nerves.” And his ease of demeanor has drawn comments from other critics, as well. Our conversation began on that topic.

How do you feel just before you go on?

As to nerves before a performance, it varies with every performance. Sometimes the half hour before can be very unpleasant; sometimes you don’t have any nerves at all. The optimal state is to be in a state of nervous excitement because being completely flat is not great, either. It feels very odd performing when you don’t have any adrenaline there, which can happen if you’ve done one too many performances in a row or something like that. It doesn’t necessarily depend on the importance of the concert, it’s more the mood of the day.

You’ve said that you’re “not that talented.” I appreciate that you meant you were not one of those toddlers who walked over to the piano and could just pick out melodies, but even so, what is it that you do possess that you think is creating this wonderful musical expression?

I don’t know.

Lots of hard work?

Lots of hard work, and relentless self-criticism, always wanting to improve. At every concert trying to do better the next time is very important. As for the quality of my playing, it’s for others to say. As I say, I’m very self-critical, so sometimes it’s hard to see the positive things.

Is there something about your temperament that makes you a good candidate for working many hours a day in an absorbed way, or do you often feel you have to drag yourself to the piano?

Sometimes I’m better at practicing than others. I’m quite a good practicer. I can make myself concentrate for long periods of time. The skill of practicing is something to acquire, and I was quite lucky in that my mother was a piano teacher, so in the early days she taught me how to practice. She would sit with me when I was practicing. In those days I was only practicing an hour a day, but she would sit with me during that time. I suppose that was very helpful in the beginning. Not a lot of students have that input, because they don’t have someone at home with that level of knowledge. That helped instill in me the right way of thinking about practice when I was very young.

How are you going about pacing your career? You must be overwhelmed with offers.

I won the BBC competition when I was 11, so that got me a lot of attention, so offers started coming in then. My parents realized that I enjoyed performing and it was something I wanted to do, but of course I should have time for other studies and for practicing and learning repertoire. So the route that we took was to do three blocks of concerts a year with different repertoire for every block, which only amounted to about 20 or maybe 30 concerts a year. It wasn’t a great deal but I was getting performance experience, which was very important. And that went on for a number of years. It got busier but I never got overworked at any point.

The optimal state is to be in a state of nervous excitement because being completely flat is not great. It feels very odd performing when you don’t have any adrenaline there.

When I was about 17, 18, I had a lot of exciting things coming in. I was asked to be on the BBC New Generation Artists Scheme, which meant I’d record a lot more with BBC orchestras, and then Decca came in, and then the Proms. I was nearing the end of my studies, my degree at the Academy [Royal Academy of Music], and I thought it was time to step up the amount of concerts I was doing. At that point I felt ready to go into it full time.

As to who advises me, my parents are always there, but I’ve had very supportive managers. They’ve been with me since I was 14 and they’ve been very supportive from the beginning and they still are. I have their guidance. But there are a lot of decisions to be made; you’re planning a life two years in advance and it’s tricky.

Do you still live at home? And how have things changed for everyone, having something of a superstar in the family? Do you still share a room?

It hasn’t really changed, except that I’m performing more so I’m not here as much. I don’t share a room, but that’s because some of my brothers moved out. A couple of years ago I got my own room. That’s the problem of being in a large family. I don’t think much has changed. They’ve always been accustomed to the fact that I practice piano a lot and do concerts and it’s my thing, and my brothers have their things, as well. It never felt that unusual, it’s just the way it was.

Do you still go to your mother with musical or technical questions?

Yeah, sure, when she comes to concerts. Until last year, she traveled with me for most of my concerts at rehearsals and recitals, so I always had her advice to ask. Just the other day she came to one of my concerts and she came backstage and I asked her “what do you think of this bit?” and these very in-depth questions which she was able to answer. It’s nice to have someone who can do that for you. She knows my playing better than anyone else so she is a great person, still, to ask advice when I need it.

About the Ravel, there’s this one rather simple solo section that begins about nine and a half minutes into the Ravel that is so lovely, and somewhat contemplative …

The skill of practicing is something to acquire, and I was quite lucky in that my mother was a piano teacher, so in the early days she taught me how to practice.

I guess you mean the cadenza in the first movement. The most beautiful part of that, for me, is this beautiful passage of trills. It’s this wonderful effect; it’s almost like a musical saw. It’s this kind of eerie effect where it slides from one note to another. That’s one of the most special moments in the piece for me. That cadenza when the theme is sustained, with this rippling accompaniment and trills in the right hand, it’s got this reaching and searching quality.

I suppose the most difficult part of the whole piece is to set the pace of the beginning of the slow movement, to really set the atmosphere there. It needs to be hypnotic. The tune unfolds and it can be quite simple, to feel the pulse always there, but at the same time you don’t want it to be too “dry.” For me, that’s one of the hardest moments of the piece. You have a page and half to yourself setting up this melody that Ravel found very difficult to write; it’s this melody that just goes on and on. It’s masterful.

Do you admire more modern pianists or pianists from other eras? Who are your role models?

Both groups. We’re very lucky to have at this point a recorded legacy that stretches back so far. There are these Romantic pianists that had so much freedom. And hearing people like Moriz Rosenthal, who was a pupil of Liszt. Later pianists Shura Cherkassky, Vladimir Horowitz, and [Artur] Rubinstein — they all had their very own way of playing, their own voice, almost their own sound at the piano, it seems to me. There’s a lot one can learn from them. But then there are fantastic more-recent pianists: Martha Argerich, for example, and Grigory Sokolov. I’ve always had a great admiration for Stephen Hough; I had a few lessons with him when I was younger. A great many people. It’s a shame I don’t get much time to go to concerts of other people these days. It’s something I should try to do more, but it’s hard when you’re traveling a lot.

What are you interested in the most, besides music?

I spend a lot of time reading. What I do is very physical so I try to exercise. When I’m at home I swim, or when I find pools on the road I swim. Movies and television programs occasionally. I’m currently trying to learn German. Reading is the principal thing. When I was quite young, I read a lot of H. G. Wells, so I’m picking that up again to see what I make of it now.

Any final thoughts about the Ravel? What sort of arc does it take the listener on?

The whole concerto has this slight jazz influence, and part of the first movement has this Basque influence; especially the first solo in the piano has this Spanish quality. Ravel was born in the Basque region of Spain. He had a French father and Basque mother, so a lot of his music … Bolero is the classic example that has that Spanish influence. And jazz, as well. He wrote it right after coming back from America. The first movement is a mixture of these very energetic, staccato-like passages and these contemplative passages like the cadenza that we spoke about the slow movement; it’s sort of an extended moment. It’s not so much about the small details, it’s more about the general effect, this long hypnotic moment. Then the last movement is very exciting and virtuosic. Virtuosic from everyone — it’s tremendously difficult for the orchestra, as well as the pianist, especially if the pianist takes it quite fast.

And are you going to take it quite fast?

Quite fast.