“I tried to channel all this electricity coming from both me and from the audience into delivering my musical message”
Danish classical pianist Emil Gryesten Jensen played for the first time at Carnegie Hall in July — an experience for life that links him to other great musicians and personal idols.
DenmarkInNY spoke with Gryesten about the impact of playing on such an iconic stage, about his musical background and inspiration, and about the Danish way of simplicity.
DKNY: How did your career begin and what are your influences and inspirations?
EG: It’s difficult to say when my career started, since I’ve been playing concerts for most of my life. I started playing at the age of seven (which is the normal age to start children who later become professional musicians), and performed as a soloist with symphony orchestra for the first time when I was sixteen. Then, during my time as a student at the music academy, I took part in lots of music competitions, which helped accelerate my career as a concert pianist.
My biggest influences are the great pianists of the past. My heroes are artists like Sergey Rachmaninov, Emil Gilels, and Vladimir Horowitz. During the 5 years I studied at the Sibelius Academy in Finland, I probably listened to Horowitz’s recordings every single day of the year… These guys were wizards, who could make time stand still, and who could play even the simplest tune in a way that would make you cry.
I have a very deep admiration for the artistic achievements of other musicians — past and present — something, which is a powerful driving force for me.
I especially seek out music that has mystical and ecstatic qualities. The operas of Wagner as well as many works of religious music can be so seductive and carry so much meaning — in a subconscious way which words don’t come anywhere near describing — that the music can be a tremendously powerful force, an elixir of life, something to give you energy and add meaning to our existence.
DKNY: Describe what it feels like to set foot on such an important stage like that of Carnegie Hall? What was running through your mind?
EG: Of course the first minutes of playing at Carnegie Hall are something really extraordinary. It does make you more nervous than performing anywhere else — and the combination of excitement, nervousness and the many thoughts that run through the mind is a very powerful experience. The feeling of “this is it! It’s now it counts!” is, quite naturally, extremely hard to let go of.
In the corridors leading in to the backstage area there are all these old posters and the walls from concerts with great artists of the past, whom most musicians look upon almost as saints… and now you’re supposed to go on stage and attempt to fill out the role as a sort of colleague to them?!
All this excitement and nervous energy is definitely something we can use in a performance. I really tried to channel all this electricity coming from both me and from the audience into delivering my musical message — knowing that quite often these kinds of situations are what bring about the most inspired and emotionally charged performances.
Interestingly enough, after sitting on stage playing for a while, one sort of gets used to the situation — even in Carnegie Hall! One starts to feel more comfortable — after all the piano, the music, and act of playing in a concert are the same as always — and this is when one starts opening up, you begin to improvise and make music freely from the heart.
But, all in all, extremely humbling to play at the Carnegie Hall for the first time — a very great experience! Definitely a major life event for any pianist.
DKNY: Did you feel the American audience reacted differently to your performance than European audiences have? If so, how?
EG: My feeling is, American audiences are more receptive, emotionally, than people in Scandinavia. When old ladies have tears in the eyes and young men are yelling ‘bravo!’ that’s definitely a sign of that. I find the public at home slightly more reserved. Perhaps Northern European audiences tend to listen in a more analytical way?
I would almost say that playing for an American audience feels a bit like playing in Eastern Europe or in Russia… there people also get more moved by the music.
DKNY: Do you feel your rootedness in the Danish music tradition has an impact when you perform abroad?
EG: As musicians, we all have lots of baggage and influences coming from many directions — of course, this shapes who we were are as people and as artists. I would rather praise individual achievements than try to tie traditions and styles to certain nations. In Denmark, we have had great geniuses in many fields who have contributed with amazing artistic achievements — especially many great figures in the literary field, as I see it. Today there is the film director Lars von Trier, who for me is perhaps the greatest Danish artist alive. Each of his works is a great and unique masterpiece, and he creates his own rules in every sense (very interesting to note that Trier seems very drawn to classical music and to opera — these feature heavily in his film). When I look to Danish cultural life, I especially see this kind of towering lighthouses. In the field of classical music, we have most of all composers like Per Nørgaard, Poul Ruders, and Hans Abrahamsen, who definitely stand out and lead the way.
If Danish artists have something in common, I think it is a special sense of the beauty of simplicity. We don’t need to make things more complicated than they are, even when creating art. This can result in a sort of directness and a focused expression, which is often very effective.
DKNY: What are some of your ambitions as a musician in the 21st century? What do you hope to achieve within the realm of your artform?
EG: Today people need music more than ever before — a moment of reflection, of feeling alive, of just sensing. This can be a powerful source of revitalisation in busy lives. I also think the rituals and the attentive intensity of a classical concert bear a certain resemblance to a church service. And, I do think that music can satisfy some of the same needs that religion once did.
To me there is no doubt that classical music — the works of the many great composers of the past centuries — is one of the most significant achievements of humanity altogether. Therefore, for me, it’s definitely a worthwhile life calling to pass these treasures on to new people and keep the tradition alive. In that sense I sometimes see myself as a missionary of Music — because I have this beautiful message that I would really like to share with other people.
Pernille Ramsdahl is the Culture and Public Diplomacy Intern at DenmarkInNY.