Piano prodigy Benjamin Grosvenor is keen to expand his repertoire, he tells Christopher Morley.
The Orchestra of the Swan has been fortunate to have the collaboration of some illustrious artists-in-assocation, including violinist Tasmin Little and cellist Julian Lloyd Webber.
The latest in that roll-call is the pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, only 19 years old, and a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London.
He manages to combine his full programme of studies with a busy performing career – in just a few days he has had regular visits to Ludlow Music Club, has performed Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall, and a recital in Ilkley, Yorkshire.
This is turning out to be a fantastic year for Benjamin, with an exclusive signing for the Decca Classics CD label (their first British pianist contract for 60 years) resulting in an enthusiastically-received first release, and his appearance at the First Night of the Proms, the youngest pianist ever so to do.
Yet his head remains unturned, and he has always struck me as so well-grounded.
“I suppose I keep myself in check, really. I am my own worst critic, and quite a severe one,” he replies. “I’m continually motivated by a desire to learn and improve. I’ve got to where I am through a lot of hard work, but there are many challenges ahead.
“I also couldn’t possibly have reached this point if I hadn’t been lucky enough to have had a group of incredibly supportive people behind me – my parents, teachers and managers – whose good judgement and advice have helped me through the course of my career to date.”
Benjamin is the youngest of five brothers. Do they keep him in order? And is his a musical family?
“Perhaps they have kept me in order in the past! Now the eldest three are off working in different fields – two in London, and one in Hong Kong. The one who attends most of my concerts is Jonathan, who has Down’s Syndrome, and often comes on trips when there’s no-one to look after him at home. It is great to have him around – he’s so continuously happy, always looking forward to the next meal, beer or coffee...
“The other musician in the family is my mother, a piano teacher, who taught me my instrument when I reached the age of six.
‘‘My older brothers all played an instrument, beginning at around the same age, but they all had given up by their early teens. Instruments played were the trumpet, violin, guitar and clarinet.
“I also played the cello, but stopped as I was nearing the end of the course of the BBC Young Musician competition.”
Which brings us to a consideration of competitions, Benjamin having come to fame as the winner of the BBC Young Musicians keyboard section at the age of 11. What are his thoughts about the value of competitions?
“I entered the BBC Young Musician Competition when I was 10 and won the keyboard section at 11. Perhaps ideally 11 is the last age at which anyone should enter a competition, since you haven’t by that time developed the self consciousness and nervous reaction to that unnatural environment that skews playing.
“I was glad for the exposure of the BBC event, as it meant that I didn’t have to think about entering future competitions, even though sometimes I was urged to do so. Competitions in the past have themselves helped to bring a number of great musicians to the fore.
‘‘At this time, I do worry that perhaps they have become a kind of worldwide industry, and so many students at conservatoires hone their playing to the competition ‘circuit’ that they expect to join shortly, and through which they hope to earn notice and a career. Musical aims can be subordinated along the way, which is sad.
“But that’s not to say that competitions nowadays cannot bring a major talent to the fore. My concern is rather their dominance in the mindset of young musicians, and the distorting effect this can have on playing.”
Benjamin has just begun the fourth year of his B.Mus course at the RAM. I wonder how his contemporaries react to having such a prodigy in their midst?
“I started two years early, so when I was there at the age of 16, perhaps it was odd for fellow students to be studying alongside someone so young. I am lucky now to have a number of very close friends there. It’s wonderful to be around so many people my age who have the same interests and concerns as I do. I’ve also greatly enjoyed the academic challenges that have been presented as part of the course, and being taught by so many inspiring teachers.”
Still so young, Benjamin Grosvenor is obviously continuing to learn repertoire, and he tells me which areas he is gradually exploring.
“So far I’ve played relatively little baroque repertoire in public, aside from some Scarlatti sonatas, so this season I’ve programmed the Bach 4th Partita. Although I’ve played a number of works by Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, generally I’ve played less from the Classical than the Romantic era, simply because I found myself so naturally drawn to the latter from an early age.
“I’m always keen to play more chamber music, and would like to do more of this in the near future. Last year I made my first public forays into Brahms and Schubert via chamber works and greatly enjoyed the experience – I was fortunate to be working with talented, seasoned musicians who could help me find my way in speaking these new tongues, as it were.”
How does he relax away from music?
“I suppose ‘listening to music’ doesn’t so much count here, but it’s something that I do in order to relax. Reading is also something I enjoy – currently Sense and Sensibility (my older brothers would probably chide me for reading such a ‘girly’ novel...) and a Beethoven biography.”
* Benjamin Grosvenor performs Mozart’s Piano Concerto no.21 with the Orchestra of the Swan at Birmingham Town Hall on October 19 (2.30pm). All details on 0121 780 3333.
* Another major music competition reaches its climax on Sunday when the finals of the 40-year-old Dudley International Piano Competition are held at Dudley Concert Hall at 4pm, accompanied by the CBSO conducted by Michael Seal.
From an initial field of 47 worldwide entrants with an average age of 23, Slava Sidorenko from the Ukraine will play Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1, the UK’s Cordelia Williams plays Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4, and the Chinese pianist Qiaojing Dai performs Chopin’s Piano Concerto no.2. All details on 01384 833960.