Benjamin Grosvenor at Wolf Trap

     Benjamin Grosvenor, a young pianist from the United Kingdom, comes very highly praised. You can’t open the pages of Gramophone magazine these days without some news of his career and accomplishments, and last year he won both the instrumental and young artist awards in the magazine’s annual honors. Grosvenor performed with the National Symphony Orchestra on Friday evening at Wolf Trap.
      I haven’t been to Wolf Trap in years. The summer venue has mostly abandoned classical music, with only a scant handful of concerts I can remember over the past several years holding much interest for orchestra lovers. Mostly it’s pop acts and orchestral pops, and not very interesting pops either (the next three NSO concerts there are a Broadway evening, a Bugs Bunny spectacular and a live accompaniment to the film “Singin’ in the Rain”).
      But Grosvenor was a draw. I hadn’t heard him live, though I’ve admired his most recent recording for Decca, which includes Saint-Saens’s Piano Concerto No. 2. It wasn’t easy to make a real assessment of his playing, given the overbearing amplification on Friday evening. From a seat in the center of the pavilion, the piano was strangely too big for the orchestra, not overwhelming it, but cutting through the textures in an electronically aggressive way.
      Still, it was obvious that Grosvenor is a very interesting artist, and a sensitive one. His performance claimed the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 2 as an intimate piece, and argued the point despite the disadvantages of performing in an outdoor venue, to an audience that is picnicking and distracted. Grosvenor isn’t flashy, he isn’t aggressive, he isn’t a pianist who generates a big sound. He likes intimate gestures, a nuanced and fluid give and take with the accompanying orchestra, and textural delicacy. Often, he distilled the piano line down to its top and bottom lines, a clear, slightly accentuated melody against a round, robust bass, as if he was aware of the amplification issues and attempting to compensate with clarity.
      In the second movement he was as attentive to the music when accompanying the orchestra as he was when playing solo lines. The effect—or the effect intended—was bardic, and improvisatory. Unfortunately, the amplification wreaked the worst damage here, placing Grosvenor’s too far forward, like a screen between the audience and the orchestra.
There were problems throughout synchronizing the soloist and the orchestra, conducted by Ankush Kumar Bahl. I remember these difficulties from a decade ago, when I regularly reviewed the NSO. The seams in almost every concerto I heard for several years were ragged and uneven, the soloist arriving just before or after the orchestra entrance. I had hoped this was less of an issue now, but alas, no. Limited rehearsal time is the likely culprit.
     Still, it was good to hear the orchestra play a few substantial pieces of classical music under the stars. The program was filled out with Tchaikovsky waltzes and a spirited rendering of the 1812 Overture, complete with some kind of enormous canon just to the right of the concert pavilion. The effect on the audience was as intended: Riotous good cheer. It was a fun evening.

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