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Musical marvel: Classical pianist Benjamin Grosvenor shares his gift in Wolf Trap concert
Benjamin Grosvenor, 21, is among the most gifted and promising young prodigies of the current generation. Since winning the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition at the age of 11, Mr. Grosvenor has performed with some of the world’s most respected orchestras, including the London Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic and Tokyo Symphony. He signed with the Decca Classics record label in 2011, the youngest-ever Briton and the first British pianist in 60 years to record for the label.
Mr. Grosvenor will perform Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday at the Wolf Trap Filene Center. In addition to the concerto, the NSO will perform a selection of pieces by Rachmaninoff and his fellow Russian composer Pyotr Tchaikovsky, culminating with Tchaikovsky’s famed “1812 Overture.”
For a musician barely old enough to have a drink after his upcoming performance, Mr. Grosvenor can sound like a performer from a much older generation, playing with a delicacy and gentle touch often lacking in his contemporaries.
“I’m very interested in the style of pianism exhibited by artists that recorded in the early 20th century like Maurice Rosenthal and Rachmaninoff or Vladimir Horowitz. All long dead, unfortunately,” said Mr. Grosvenor in a telephone interview Wednesday. “I think a lot of these expressive writers used techniques which are not so often found in the lexicon of modern piano playing, so I spend a lot of time listening to those recordings and trying to learn from them.”
Ankush Kumar Bahl, the assistant conductor with the NSO who will hold the baton Friday night, expressed his enthusiasm for working with Mr. Grosvenor. “He’s very talented and became well known very early in his career, so he’s already a seasoned veteran in his early 20s,” said Mr. Bahl. “The orchestra always enjoys presenting young talents, so they’ll get a kick out of playing with him as well.”
Though Mr. Bahl is excited to lead the orchestra through the second concerto, which he grew up playing and listening to and calls one of his favorite concertos, he is just as excited about the rest of the pieces the orchestra will perform.
“What’s really cool about conducting the National Symphony in this particular program is that it’s an all-Russian program,” said Mr. Bahl. “One of our previous musical directors was [Mstislav] Rostropovich, an incredibly famous Russian cellist and a Russian national hero. There are many people in the orchestra who remember playing under him, and while we’re one of the great American orchestras, one of the quotes I get very often is that when Rostropovich was our director we were the greatest Russian orchestra outside of Moscow. As a young conductor, to be able to do this repertoire with an orchestra so deeply entrenched in Russian tradition will be an incredible learning experience.”
In interpreting the music of the Russian master, Mr. Grosvenor has a particular challenge that he does not face when interpreting the music of composers from earlier decades: Rachmaninoff himself was recorded performing the second concerto, giving future performers a greater sense of what the maestro had in mind than can be intuited solely from a written score. Though this can provide guidance, any performer of Rachmaninoff’s music must still offer his own interpretation.
“It’s very interesting to listen to the way Rachmaninoff played this piece, it’s a bit of a fingerbender at times,” said Mr. Grosvenor. “To hear the phrasing, it’s a very fluid conception, you get the sense of phrase going forward and surging onward. For me it’s important to try to capture that. With Rachmaninoff one should go back and listen to the composer play it.”
This challenge is also faced by Mr. Bahl, who has heard countless orchestral performances of the concerto. “I spend a lot of time looking at the music, which is a movie script, black and white words or notes on paper, and my job is to make it from black and white into color, like a director with a movie script,” he explained. “If you had five different directors film a script, you would get five different movies. As a conductor, I will try to get whatever I can out of the score and fill in whatever blanks I feel should be filled in and present my interpretation to the orchestra in the rehearsal process, and then they have an intense musical opinion and identity toward the piece. It’s my job to marry the two ideas. It’s not 100 percent mine and not 100 percent theirs.”
Friday will mark Mr. Grosvenor’s first performance with the National Symphony Orchestra, and Rachmaninoff’s concerto offers an ideal piece for the debut, said Mr. Bahl. “It features the pianist, but also features several members of the orchestra, as opposed to a piece where we’re just playing the backdrop music to the concerto,” he said. “In this case it’s a full dialogue with the symphony and the pianist.”
For his part, Mr. Grosvenor hardly minds sharing the spotlight. “Playing solo all the time is quite a lonely thing to do,” he said. “As a pianist you play by yourself, so it’s nice to be able to come and work with an orchestra and a conductor you really get on with.”
WHAT: National Symphony Orchestra “1812 Overture and More!”
WHERE: Wolf Trap Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna
WHEN: July 26, 8:15 p.m.
By Brahma Chellaney
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