Portrait of a Piano Prodigy

During rehearsal at the Saenger Theatre on Feb. 16, Benjamin Grosvenor, 20, strolls casually across the stage toward his piano. Dressed in a blue T-shirt, light jacket, brown corduroys, with water bottle in hand, his shock of wild-man hair adds to his charm. He is slight of frame, graceful in movement. It has been said that he is shy and in observing him, there is a quietness, a certain thoughtfulness and one can believe that yes, he does seem shy.

Then, after dropping his jacket to the floor, he touches the piano and in an explosion of power, the shyness is gone. He commands the keys and attacks the piano with a ferocity that is more than strength; it is outside the realm of passion. It is possession, obsession or something even more consuming. In an instant everyone in the theater knows we are in the presence of genius. Then subtly, he melds together with the piano so that each becomes an extension or part of the other. In essence, instrument and player are one. In the softer passages, he is painstakingly delicate and whispers over the keys with a rose petal caress.

British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor made his solo debut at Carnegie Hall at 13 years old. When he was 11, he won the Keyboard Final of the 2004 BBC Young Musician Competition, and it was this feat which launched him onto the international stage. Since then he has performed with orchestras worldwide including the New York Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Tokyo Symphony, RAI Torino, Philharmonia and in venues as varied as The Sydney Opera House, The Frick Collection, Singapore's Victoria Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and the Parc du Chateau de Florans in France.

At just 19 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, performing to a sold-out Royal Albert Hall on the First Night of the 2011 Proms, Benjamin became the youngest ever soloist in the history of the Proms, dazzling his audience and mesmerizing critics. Last year, Benjamin signed to Decca Classics, instantly becoming the youngest British musician on their roster and the first British pianist to sign to the label in nearly 60 years. He is currently working on his second CD with Decca.

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The youngest of five brothers, Benjamin began playing the piano in earnest at age 6, a pupil of his piano teacher, mother, Rebecca. When asked what his mother gave him, “Everything. My love of music came from her and crucially she would practice with me. In the early days, we formed my interpretations of pieces together.”

“She has shaped me musically. She knows what I'm trying to do. Sometimes she makes a comment about my playing that makes me think, 'what are you saying, Mum?' – only to discover hours later that she's right. Which is annoying.”

Benjamin lives with his parents and his 22-year-old brother, Jonathan, who has Down syndrome and with whom he is very close. When Benjamin was awarded the coveted Critic's Choice award at the Classic Brits last October, he dedicated it to his brother and the audience was deeply moved. “It was for putting up with my incessant practice over the years and coming to so many of my concerts against his will.” Jonathan has traveled the world with Benjamin to watch him play and says he likes his concerts. It is unknown whether or not Jonathan was with his brother in Mobile, but Benjamin has said, “When I go away without him, he's the person I miss most, because he brings so much joy.”

In July 2012, when Benjamin graduated from the Royal Academy of Music, he received The Queen's Commendation for Excellence, which was followed by the Classic Brit and 2 Gramophone awards in the same week, prompting at least one reporter to ponder, “How many honours and prizes can you load on a 20-year-old pianist?” He is an international star, has no parallel on the planet, has been lauded by CNN in the series “Human to Hero, ” as a “former child prodigy…one of the most exciting and distinctive pianists in the world today.”

But Benjamin says, “I wasn't one of those prodigies you read about who went to the piano and could just pick out tunes. My mother tried to start me when I was five, but I couldn't be bothered. I only began practicing seriously when my friends at school started to play and I thought, 'they're not going to get better than me!'”

Now, no one is better than Benjamin Grosvenor. Says Christopher Elton, Royal Academy professor who has been Benjamin's piano tutor for the past eight years, “…from the first moment it was clear there was something extraordinary there. Not just an intense musicality, but real originality, a very unusual voice.”

Recently in Brazil, he nearly started a riot reported Tamara Ikenberg last week in Press-Register. “Audience members rushed the stage and urged him to continue playing, ” she says. “No, no, it wasn't quite as bad as that. It's just unusual. It's something you might expect more at a pop concert, ” Benjamin responds. Benjamin Grosvenor, Pop Prince of Piano, is this where he's headed, Justin Bieber of the classical world? Could well be, he's certainly handsome and disarmingly charming.

But Benjamin possesses a humility which is lost on most pop stars, “I'm not that talented, musically. I obviously have some kind of gift for interpreting music, but really otherwise, I'm not that talented.”

However, for Saenger audience members who heard him play Maurice Ravel's 'Piano Concerto in G' and George Gershwin's 'Rhapsody in Blue, ' the truth is a little different. He breathes his music, so much is it a part of him. One wonders, if he ever has a moment of complete soul-quiet or is the music always there playing, challenging, delighting, teasing him?

Benjamin Grosvenor is masterful, brilliant, genius, yes. But these words are not strong enough. An entirely new vocabulary needs creating to accurately describe his virtuosity. For those who have seen him perform, heard him play live, for any soul with any sensitivity at all, one can only answer his gift with deep sighs, amazement, gratitude and the ever-reaching hope for more of his music.

This journalist would like to thank: Ron Russell; Dane Butzer; Gregg W. Gustafson, CEO, Mobile Symphony Orchestra; John Bridges; John Morris Russell, Conductor of the Cincinnati Pops; Bill Capone, Arts Management Group, New York; Gayle Dawson; Denys Leigh-Taylor and Evan Weekes. Without their generous support and assistance this story would have not been possible. A deep debt of gratitude is owed to Rebecca and Benjamin Grosvenor. Thank you so much for your time, it was indeed an honor and a privilege.

Sources: Michael Church, THE INDEPENDENT; Tom Service, THE GUARDIAN; Julia Llewellyn Smith, THE TELEGRAPH; Tamara Ikenberg, PRESS-REGISTER; CNN Series, HUMAN TO HERO; Katy Cropper, Hazard Chase Ltd., London

Natalie Noel

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