Interview: Benjamin Grosvenor

23 January 2014

It is easy to forget that concert pianist Benjamin Grosvenor is only twenty-one. His formidable CV includes critically-acclaimed performances with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the London Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and the Tokyo Symphony; three albums; and an extensive list of awards.  Grosvenor’s rise to prominence began when he won the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of eleven.  A Royal Academy of Music graduate, he is the youngest British musician ever to have a contract with the label Decca Classics, with which he has released several very well-received recordings. TCS chatted on the phone with Grosvenor about practice sessions, critics, and whether he’s a closet top 40 music fan.

Tara: How did you get started playing the piano?

Benjamin: I started playing the piano at the age of five or six. At first I didn’t have any more than an average interest in it, and then some friends at school started learning. I think I was spurred on to practise by the thought that they might get better than me! My first performances, the act of communicating with an audience, gave a purpose to what I was doing in the practice room and I thought that this might be something I would like to do as a career. I remember telling my father this after a concert when I was 10.  Immediately after that I had some competition success – I entered and got to the final of the BBC competition, and that kind of kicked things off.

T.: How do you find that your interpretations of pieces you played when you were younger have changed as you got older?

B.: You pick up on a lot of influences in the time that you haven’t played the piece. New ideas come, and you have new feelings about the piece – it’s sometimes almost as if it’s been working itself out in your head. In some pieces it might be a large scale thing – you might have a different tempo when you play it later; or it might be small-scale things – you might change certain rubatos, voicings or the shaping of individual phrases, with a certain goal in mind. It’s interesting to listen to the great pianists of the 20th century who recorded pieces at different times in their career. For me, it’s a 10-year timescale now, but in 60 years …

T.: Could you talk about how you practise – how much do you do each day, and what do you do during each practice session?

B.: It depends on what stage you are at in learning a piece. In the early stages you practise primarily to get the notes under your fingers, writing in fingerings. And then there’s a kind of practice when you are really sort of honing something technically, which is much the same; a sort of more involved version of what you do initially. But then there’s the kind of practice where you’re really thinking about the piece and the interpretation of it – and that’s practice where it doesn’t have a defined goal to it, so it’s not such a defined process either. I think it’s very useful to record yourself, though not all the time because it’s easy to become obsessive about it.

T.: What kinds of people tend to give you the most valuable feedback?

B.: For a lot of my career my mother has travelled with me to my concerts. I would say she is the person who has given me the most valuable feedback because she knew my playing and knew what I was going for. That is the problem with critics – you’re not aware of their personalities, nor familiar with where they are coming from artistically and their tastes might be very different from yours.  And, of course, the way we experience music is always very subjective. For this reason, it is sometimes difficult to draw something constructive from their critiques – though you try to see where they are coming from – and it’s good to have a network of people around you (teachers, friends) whose opinions you feel you trust. I also record my concerts where I can so I can listen to myself. I’m probably my own worst critic.

T.: What is your biggest challenge as a pianist?

B.: You spend a lot of time touring alone as a pianist, because unlike many other instrumentalists you don’t play with an accompanist in recitals.  It’s also a hugely challenging thing physically, both in the practice room and in performance. You’re playing pieces which have existed for quite some time and which have received great performances by numerous personalities in the past – it’s basically a challenge to bring something new to them.

T.: Do you have any musical guilty pleasures?

B.: Not really – I listen mostly to classical music in my spare time. Although, to be honest, I don’t listen to a great deal of music, at least when I’m at home. You immerse yourself in practice and music the whole day long, so in your spare time you want to do something else.  When going on the road though, I fill up my phone with music and make up for it.

 

Benjamin Grosvenor is playing at the West Road Concert Hall, 29 January 2014, 7.30pm.