Talk about being on the fast track. At just 24 years of age, Benjamin Grosvenor has already amassed a resumé that would make would be the envy of many seasoned classical soloists. In 2011, he became the youngest British artist ever and the first British pianist in 60 years to sign with the prestigious recording label Decca Classics. He has gone on to garner several honors, including the BBC Music Magazine Instrumental Award 2015, and perform with some of the world’s best orchestras, including the London Philharmonic and Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
If that weren’t enough, the New York Philharmonic named him last year as the inaugural recipient of the Ronnie and Lawrence Ackman Classical Piano Prize, which is to be awarded every three years by a panel of musical experts. “It was a big surprise,” Grosvenor said via e-mail. “It’s a new award and is decided by a jury working in secret, some of whom are members of the New York Philharmonic. As such, I didn’t even know I was in the running for it, and it’s really a major honor.” The prize includes a cash gift of $30,000 as well as the opportunity to perform with the orchestra (his subscription debut is set for April 2018), play chamber music with N.Y. Phil musicians, and take part in community and educational initiatives around New York.
After his 2015 recital debut in Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, New York Times critic David Allen proclaimed him “a boy lord of the piano.” “In a program of remembrances, of Bach, Couperin and Italy,” Allen wrote of Grosvenor, “he recalled a distant age of pianism, playing with a judgment far beyond his years and a tone so achingly antique, it sounded as if it ought properly to be heard through the crackle and hiss of an old monophonic record. … For all that Daniil Trifonov, Yuja Wang, Khatia Buniatishvili and others can wow with speed or daring, Mr. Grosvenor makes you sigh with joy.”
Chicago audiences will have a chance to take Grosvenor’s measure Feb. 19, when he makes his debut on the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series. His wide-ranging program opens with Schumann’s Arabesque, Op. 18, which the pianist calls a kind of “amuse-bouche.” It will be followed by Mozart’s Sonata in B-flat Major, K. 333, and Beethoven’s famed Sonata in C-sharp Minor, Op. 27, No. 2 (Moonlight). He has previously juxtaposed the Mozart selection with Chopin’s Second Sonata, and he liked the contrast between light and dark that the two pieces generated. He believes this pairing achieves a similar effect.
The second half opens with Scriabin’s Sonata No. 2 in G-sharp Minor, Op. 19, a two-movement work that Grosvenor said could be called the “real” Moonlight Sonata. The composer described its musical evocations in this way: “The first section represents the quiet of a southern night on the seashore; the development is the dark agitation of the deep, deep sea. The E major middle section shows caressing moonlight coming up after the first darkness of night. The second movement represents the vast expanse of ocean in stormy agitation.”
The program then moves to Spanish music,” Grosvenor said, “which is something for which I’ve always had great affection,” Grosvenor said. “Two pieces are included from Granados’ Goyescas, which inhabit a similar, luminously colored world to Scriabin. They are incredibly vibrant, and the writing often has the spirit of improvisation. The concert ends with Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole, one of the finest of such works in his output.”
The fast-rising pianist first grabbed the music world’s attention at age 11, when he was named the winner of the keyboard final at the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition. “The competition first brought my playing to the attention of the wider public — the final rounds are broadcast on national television — and as a consequence, I started to be invited to play concerts,” he said. “I suppose people felt that this meant I was perhaps worth an initial hearing, and then engagement led to engagement overseas in addition to within the United Kingdom. At that point, though, I was obviously very young and needed time for my general schooling as well as time to practice and grow as a musician, so in those early years I only played a limited number of concerts a year.”
Six years later, he was selected to be one of BBC Radio 3’s New Generation Artists, a program that allows promising musicians to work with the BBC orchestras and enjoy some of their first forays in the recording studio. As a result of that experience, he appeared at age 19 in London at the 2011 opening concert of the BBC Proms — the popular summer-concert series’ youngest opening-night soloist ever. A year later, his first Decca album, featuring works by Chopin, Liszt and Ravel, won two Gramophone Awards, making him the magazine’s youngest-ever double honoree.
In September, Grosvenor released his fourth album, “Homages,” featuring works in which composers pay tribute to their predecessors. Included, for example, are Busoni’s piano transcription of Bach’s famed Chaconne for solo violin and Chopin’s reinterpretation of the traditional barcarolle sung by Venetian gondoliers. “’Homages’ started out as a program of works directly influenced by the Baroque – a ‘Baroque revisited’ project,” the pianist said. “But I felt this didn’t express the range of repertoire in my concerts at that time, so we expanded the idea to ‘tributes’ — not only of composers such as Busoni, Franck and Mendelssohn looking back to the Baroque, but other forms of musical tribute.”
The album quickly received a prestigious Diapason d’Or, a monthly honor bestowed by the French classical-music magazine Diapason. “The distinct character that Grosvenor affords each piece allows itself to be subtly realized,” stated the magazine’s review of the album. “His pianistic ingenuity, his lyrical voice and aristocratic distinction remind one of the young Josef Hofmann or Ignaz Friedman. ‘Homages’? A thrown-together title to headline a program in which each piece is inspired by ideas or material that had preceded it. Yet the perfect title: a superlative tribute to the art of the piano.”
Despite the many plaudits and honors that have streamed his way in a very short period of time, Grosvenor doesn’t find it hard to avoid getting caught up in his own success. “There is always a concert to work towards, and I regard each concert, whether in a big city or in a small music society, as being equally important,” he said. “I suppose looking from the outside, one is probably more aware of these external things as they are more visible, but to the musician, they are more peripheral to daily life. I’m driven forward by my desire to continually improve in what I do and to give service to the music to the best of my abilities. Of course, with all the work, any recognition is heartening, but it doesn’t change what I am striving towards.”
Kyle MacMillan, former classical music of the Denver Post, is a Chicago-based arts journalist.