Simon Danell, pianist

Who or what inspired you to take up piano, and pursue a career in music?

I actually can’t think of one specific thing that made me pursue a career in music, but rather “one thing led to another”. My parents had a piano in their house, which eventually caught my attention when I was 15, after I realized that I didn’t want to be like everyone else in the village where I grew up.

Then I had an amazing teacher who really encouraged me, and made me fall in love with the piano. At some point I just found myself auditioning for conservatories and music schools. Now I’m just about to release my first CD, I have a manager, and I have some 10 students… but I still don’t see it as my “career”. I just love the piano, and I’m simply lucky to make a living out of it.

Who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

First of all, my teachers. Without them it would obviously never have happened. The Sheva Collection record company is also an important, but very new, connection.

Second, I was fiercely competitive when I grew up (luckily, that has passed!), and was fortunate enough to to be with a teacher who had three students who were way, way better than I was. I noticed how much the audience applauded them, and all the prizes they won in competitions. If I ever wanted that, I had to work ten times harder than they did, since I started playing some 10 years later than them.

Then I also love how a piece of music just untangles itself when you learn it. I see the score as a mystery which you have to solve, and I find it such a fascinating experience. If I didn’t find practicing as interesting as I do, I don’t think it would have worked.

I also got to play very soon. After only a year or two of lessons, a small church in my village invited me to play a recital. Support from people and organisers other than your friends and family makes it so much easier!

What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?

My injury, no doubt. In my fourth year, I had loads of concerts. I also decided to add something new to every concert, which meant trying to learn one big piece every month or so. The stress eventually caught up with me, and one morning when I woke up, I couldn’t move the second finger of my left hand at all.

I went to a countless of “experts” who all were sure it was something different than what the previous expert said it was. At some point, two doctors said that it was probably focal dystonia, which completely broke me. I lost myself, and I was so very close to quitting. Luckily, it turned around and I’m almost happy it happened because of the things I learned about myself.

Which performance/recordings are you most proud of?

To continue the previous question – things looked very bleak for quite a long time, and I really didn’t expect it to turn around. To go from almost quitting to record a CD is something I will always be very proud of.

Which particular works do you think you play best?

I’m very superstitious about this. Whenever I am openly happy about the way I play something, it somehow tends to lose its magic.

Having said that, there are certain composers who always seem put up a bit of a fight when I learn their pieces, which makes the exploring much more like work rather than enjoyment. And then there are composers that I enjoy right away when I start practicing, like Mozart and Scriabin. I sort of hope it doesn’t make a difference to the audience when I perform, but I feel much more at home in their repertoire.

How do you make your repertoire choices from season to season?

I try to make it revolve around an atmosphere, where all or most of the pieces express similar things, but at the same time are completely different from each other.

If they are too similar, it becomes monotonous and dull. Too different, and there won’t really be a reason why they’re there. Then of course, I try to pick pieces I think I can play well.

Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?

Dunkers kulturhus in Sweden is my “home stage”, so it’s very comfortable for me to play there. But then I also like to play in much smaller places, not even proper halls. Every year I play in a church in the place where my parents live. There’s no entrance fee, they just have an upright piano, and it takes maybe 50 people. But I can talk to the audience, and I can see them walking in. It feels like we’re all just friends, who happen to be listening to me giving a concert. It’s so nice not to feel above the audience, as it sometimes does on big stages.

Who are your favourite musicians?

Too many to mention! But the ones I always come back to are Naum Grubert (my former teacher), Sofronitsky, Gould, Furtwangler, Kleiber, Lamond and Schnabel. I also recently got into Rudolf Firkussny and Ivan Moravec. They’re less well-known, but terribly interesting!

What is your most memorable concert experience?

It was very long time ago, and I don’t at all remember how, or even what, I played.

It was in a small church in my city, and the audience gave me my first ever standing ovation, and asked for my first encore. It came as such a surprise, and I didn’t prepare an encore… so I asked the audience which of the pieces they’d like me to play again.

As a musician, what is your definition of success?

If you’re happy and proud of what you do, I’d say you’re successful. If you can make a living of it, it’s a plus.

What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?

Listen as much as you can to other lessons. You learn so much from observing! The teacher says something and you simply notate it. (I even have notes from masterclasses saying “don’t teach like this”.) And don’t be afraid to ask questions. If you don’t understand why you should or shouldn’t do something, the teacher has a duty to tell you.

What is your most treasured possession?

My music library and my wedding ring (and the matching person)

What is your present state of mind?

My first CD will be out in the 1st of June, so I’m terribly nervous!

Simon Danell’s debut disc of music by Schubert, Scriabin, Janacek and Ravel is released on the Sheva Collection label on 1 June and is also available on Spotify.

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