Benjamin Grosvenor, born on 8 July 1992 in Westcliff-on-Sea, Southend-on-Sea, Essex, England, has never entered an international piano competition. And truth be told, he won’t have to in the future. In fact, he was the youngest ever winner of the Keyboard division of the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2004 at the age of 11. Performing Ravel’s Concerto in G in the concerto final, “his level of musical maturity and his technical facility mightily impressed the judges.”
As he explained in an interview with Mark Ainley, “Perhaps ideally, 11 is the last age at which anyone should enter a competition, since you haven’t by that time developed the self-consciousness and nervous reaction to that unnatural environment that skews playing! I was glad for the exposure of the BBC event, as it meant that I didn’t have to think about entering future competitions, even though sometimes I was urged to do so. The competitive nature of the industry is irksome as there should be no element of gladiatorial combat in playing Bach or Mozart or Chopin… My concern is with the mindset of young musicians dominated by competitions, and the distorting effect this can have on playing.”
Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G Major (Final 2004)
Grosvenor didn’t feel much pressure entering the competition, as it was a surprising experience for him. He explains, “A leaflet came through the door and I entered the competition, not thinking I would get past the first round. It was a huge surprise to reach the concerto final. I didn’t have a concerto to play of the length required and they wanted a recording very far in advance to show I could play it, so I learned the Ravel G Major.”
Grosvenor grew up far away from international conservatories in the relaxed environment of southern England. The youngest of five brothers, his father is an English and Drama teacher, and his mother a professional piano educator. Actually, it was his grandfather that wanted him to become a concert pianist, and his mother became his first piano teacher at the age of five. Educated at the Westcliff High School for Boys, and in 2001, Christopher Elton, the head of piano at the Royal Academy of music received an unexpected email.
J.S. Bach: Partita No. 4 in D Major, BWV 828 (Benjamin Grosvenor, piano)
It read, “I have been teaching for 20 years and I now have a very young student who is by far the most wonderfully talented I have ever encountered, and what makes it more difficult to write is that he is also my son.” Elton followed up and arranged for 9-year-old Benjamin to play for him and his wife and fellow piano teacher, Hilary Coates. Elton recalls, “As soon as Benjamin started playing (some Chopin and also a piece by Stephen Hough, if I remember correctly), we both looked at each other, realizing this had some rare and extraordinary quality. He was hunched over the piano with raised shoulders, but there was a quality of vision even then that shone through all the technical limitations.” Initially, Coates took over as Benjamin’s piano teacher, while Elton maintained a monitoring role. “Increasingly,” Coates remembers, “we worked in tandem and things went on an extraordinary accelerating curve.” In May 2003, Grosvenor gave his first full recital at a local church playing both the piano and the cello. And within the same year, he made his first concert appearance with the Westcliff Sinfonia, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21.
Benjamin Grosvenor Plays Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in A Major
Noriko Ogawa was on the jury of the BBC Young Musician Competition in 2004, and she recalls “Benjamin’s music-making was not only beautiful and mature but there was a very refined form of sadness in the sound. If I were to boil it down to a single word, it would be magical.” Christopher Elton assumed primary responsibility of Grosvenor’s musical education, and he stressed the significance of Benjamin’s years at the RAM. “After a period of homeschooling, the interaction with his peers and the sheer wealth of musical richness he encountered were vitally important.”
Equally important was the fact that Grosvenor was never labeled a child prodigy, “as his musicianship has never been defined by his childhood.” In fact, he signed for Decca in April 2011, “the youngest artist ever and the first British pianist in 60 years to sign with the label.” The managing director of Decca Classics at the time, Paul Moseley, explained, “I was immediately struck by the rightness of the playing, the rhythmic subtlety and lack of sentimentality. Everything felt like it had an arc and a shape and knew where it was going. And he wasn’t trying to show off, though his technique is as good as anyone’s.”
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