Greatness in music has many origins. Family professions or regional traditions are a part of the heritage of many great performers. An early influential teacher often plays a role. Some very young geniuses are discovered one day playing someone’s piano as if they were adults who had done so all their lives.
And once these young people take off, if they do, they do so in many ways. Managers, stage parents, industry mentors, record labels can push and pull a young artist to success, at least for a while. Staying power, though, can be a much harder achievement.
The British pianist Paul Lewis, who turns 42 this month, appeared essentially out of nowhere in the 1990s. A working-class kid from Liverpool, England, Lewis met his most influential teacher and coach, the legendary Alfred Brendel, well after he had been playing for some years. And Lewis steadily built a career by going deep rather than wide. At a relatively young age he set out to play and record all the Beethoven sonatas and then all the Schubert sonatas, and to do so all around the world. Chicagoans were very fortunate that Orchestra Hall was a base for many of these appearances over several years. Much of the wider repertoire still beckons.
Lewis finds himself now with several months on the road — from New York (a much-belated Philharmonic debut) to Seattle to Stavanger, Norway; to Chicago to a tour of Asia with a Czech orchestra — playing concertos only by Beethoven and Brahms.
“And I like that,” he said this week from his Chicago hotel room. And the coincidence that his New York Brahms and his Chicago Beethoven — the Concerto No. 3, in C minor, Thursday, Friday and Saturday with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra — are both with the same conductor, the venerable German Christoph von Dohnanyi, while something of a coincidence, is something “I like, too,” he said.
But Lewis does not say or arrange any of this because he likes routine — just the opposite.
“You return to certain composers and to certain pieces, and you can tell that a piece is great, because you keep seeing things that you never saw before,” Lewis said. The same applies he said, about his work with Dohnanyi, with whom, in another coincidence, Lewis made his CSO debut (in Mozart) in 2009.
“He makes everything seem right so that you can focus on the piano and know that the orchestra will work with you and you with it. And then then the good surprises can happen.”
Lewis still has something of a choirboy’s looks and a great mop of curly hair. He’s highly cultured and articulate without ever being pretentious — a match with his acclaimed and penetrating performances and landmark CDs. Yet sometimes in speech, the Liverpudlian accent slips out (the “i” in an “All the tiiiime!” stretches the phrase) and you feel as if you are talking with a reincarnated Beatle. And you can sense the spirit of Lewis, the son of a dockworker and a clerk, who broke into his own school as a boy to play the piano there.
His father, whoalong with his mother eventually became supportive of a career in a musical world they knew nothing about, turned him in to the school’s principal. Fortunately that gentleman advised getting young Paul more regular and easy access to an instrument. Even after some years on the international circuit and conscientious contributions to his family, Lewis still needed to answer his mother’s concerns as to “when might you be getting a real job.”
His dedicated and concentrated playing now makes both his parents and his own family happy. This will be the sixth year that he and his wife, Bjoerg Lewis, a Norwegian cellist, have a June weekend international chamber festival in a village near their home outside of London in the rolling hills of Buckinghamshire. Their three young children are all playing string instruments and their eldest daughter is starting piano as well.
“But all of their own volition,” Lewis insisted. “We want them to make friends with music. And if more comes from that, super. And if not, that’s just fine, too.”