The end of this month marks the fourth appearance of 25-year-old Benjamin Grosvenor in Seattle in six years. He will be performing Chopin’s 1829 Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra.
There’s nothing unusual about a touring virtuoso soloist making repeat stops in a city that appreciates his or her music. But it’s possible, in the case of British pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, that the frequency of his performances in Seattle has not been fully recognized as something special.
The end of this month marks the fourth appearance of Grosvenor — hailed by Gramophone magazine as possibly “the most remarkable young pianist of our time” — in Seattle in six years. He will be performing Chopin’s 1829 Piano Concerto No. 2 with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra, in a program that also includes a pair of audience favorites composed by Camille Saint-Saëns: the spooky “Danse Macabre” (inspired by tales of Death raising the dead to dance) and triumphant Symphony No. 3 (“Organ”), with its thrilling, final movement.
“The Chopin is a great piece, written when he was still a student but not written in the same way concertos typically are,” says Grosvenor from his home in London, referring in part to the extra hands that helped shape the orchestration. “Some people complain it’s poorly orchestrated, but Chopin had such a gift for melody, and this concerto really has some of his most beautiful music, particularly the second movement.”
Grosvenor says the work has been a favorite of his for a long time, and he returns to it periodically as a touchstone.
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“I play it often. Every time I pick it up, certain things change, perspective changes. That’s the nature of growing older with music.”
The 25-year-old Grosvenor made his Seattle debut in 2012, performing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 at a festive New Year’s Eve concert at Benaroya Hall, a program capped by Beethoven’s Ninth. In 2013, he was invited back to solo on the Rachmaninov piece again as part of SSO artistic director Ludovic Morlot’s innovative “Rach Fest.” For that event, Grosvenor was one of four prize-winning young pianists from around the globe, tackling one or another of the Russian composer’s quartet of piano concertos.
Yet one could say, considering his superstar stature at home and elsewhere, that Grosvenor was a little overshadowed by those two theme-heavy SSO programs. In 2017, he deservedly claimed the limelight in a recital at Meany Center, playing Mozart, Liszt and Schumann. But his return engagement with SSO this coming June 28, 30 and July 1 sandwiches him (and Chopin) between the higher-profile Saint-Saëns works.
No complaints. But Grosvenor is considered by some critics and fellow musicians to have unparalleled talent among his generation. Hailed by the Daily Telegraph as one of the “Top 10 Britons of the Year” in 2011, Grosvenor’s gift for embracing the soul of a composition while presenting it with clear, unaffected authenticity, youthful energy and humility made him a superstar before he set foot in Benaroya.
Grosvenor’s father is a drama teacher and his mother a piano instructor. He is the youngest of five brothers and the only musical one.
“When I was 6, my mother suggested I pick an instrument. I chose piano because there was always one playing in the house by her students.”
Grosvenor began publicly performing at age 10, and stole the hearts of U.K. television viewers when, at 12, he played a difficult Ravel piece in a BBC Young Musician television contest, coming in first for keyboards.
The following year he played the Royal Albert Hall in London and Carnegie Hall in New York. At 14, he signed a development deal with venerable record label EMI, while maintaining a supportive relationship with an enthusiastic BBC.
Happily, all the buzz surrounding the boy prodigy didn’t fade with time. One reason was staying grounded in family life (he left a boarding school for music students after a few days). He remained a student at the Royal Academy of Music despite professional opportunities his peers didn’t have.
How does he look back on those formative years?
“I have watched videos of myself from back then, but not recently,” Grosvenor says. “When you hear yourself playing as a child it’s evident that it’s you, but there’s a lot of distance in years and experience. You seem like yourself, but you really aren’t.”
In 2011, the year before his Seattle debut, Grosvenor, at 19, became the youngest artist to open the beloved BBC Proms season and, remarkably, was invited to play there again on another night. He became the first British pianist in 60 years to sign with Decca; his first disc with that record label winning two Gramophone Awards and a Classic BRIT Award.
Grosvenor says trusting musical instinct is important for finding what an artist needs.
“Chopin was one of the first composers I enjoyed, and who connected to me. Bach I didn’t appreciate at the beginning, but did when I was 13 or 14. As I got older, I felt a particular calling to Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich. Over time, you become drawn to one composer or another.”
Saint-Saëns Symphony No. 3 and Chopin Piano Concerto No. 2, featuring Kazuki Yamada, conductor, and Benjamin Grosvenor, pianist, and Seattle Symphony. 7:30 p.m. Thursday, June 28, 8 p.m. Saturday, June 30, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 1; Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $22-$122; 206-215-4747; seattlesymphony.org.