What have been the greatest challenges of your career so far?
It would be an understatement to say that the last year and a half was extremely challenging, particularly for people working in the field of live performance. We all lost our sense of “self” to a greater or lesser degree. In my case, online performance simply did not float my boat. Having lost many engagements as a pianist, I now feel like I am starting from square one again. I’ve also (re)discovered different ways of making music as a result, going back to my roots as an improviser and electronic music composer, only under a different guise. I absolutely loved fooling around with synths and my laptop during the first lockdown, and sonic collaging now continues to be a staple of my creative diet. More here
Of which performances/recordings are you most proud?
I don’t really feel “proud” as such of these things. I am always full of self-criticism, which is something I continue to work on (for those of you who are familiar with the inner critics, I recommend Internal Family Systems therapy). I feel pleased and relieved when I bring a project to completion. Recordings are strange beasts, very different from live performance, and can of course have very long, painful and difficult births, very traumatic. These days, most artists I know, even in the more “commercial” music fields, have to self-fund their recording projects in some way, either through grants or with their own money. As such, it can take years to get something off the ground. I am delighted to be releasing “Gold.Berg.Werk” on Ergodos this Autumn, which took years of planning and almost didn’t happen when the pandemic hit. We had all of our concerts cancelled and managed to record in a frenzy in the brief window between lockdowns in the Autumn of 2020. I was also pleased and excited to finally have my own music on record “Atomic Legacies” on Diatribe, which came out in April 2020. Again, not the best time to launch a record as we couldn’t tour this at all, so I still have boxes of LPs tragically languishing under my desk. They are beautiful objects as they feature images from an installation by a German artist Helmut Schweizer, but they do take up space!
Do you have a favourite concert venue to perform in and why?
No. It’s just a relief to play in a warm, well-lit space with good acoustics and a decent instrument, but this situation is far from standard. I’ve played in dark, rat-infested bars, underground bunkers, bat caves, you name it. I’ve even recently played a horrible seized-up upright piano in a pond. That’s the nature of my work, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love it. I often end up playing on awful pianos and in interesting, “uninviting” spaces. However, I think that with a bit of coaxing, love and the right attitude you can convince even a terrible instrument to speak out and sing in some way that can be beautiful.
What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music audiences/listeners?
Where do we even start? There are so many problems with the traditional concert experience and so much baggage with the repertoire and the industry. It can be incredibly off-putting and is a self-perpetuating prophecy. Music education is a real problem (the systematic dismantling of music in schools is an atrocity, while classical music graded exam syllabi are another major issue, as they tend to perpetuate bias and discrimination from generation to generation). Music curators can also be very unhelpful to the world of music when they try to pander to what they think audiences want. However, I think that music, musicians and listeners will find a way to keep going. I believe it was Charles Rosen who wrote that as long as there are pianists wanting to play repertoire, there will be audiences to listen to them (he was referring to contemporary classical piano music in particular). I suppose that he was right. No musicians = no music.
What is your most memorable concert experience?
I feel like concert experiences, both as a performer and as an audience member, can now be divided into two distinct and separate categories: pre-Corona and post-Corona. Pre-Corona was another world, a lost world, a forgotten world, full of memories that seem so distant now. Post-Corona, the one experience that stands out so far is actually as an audience member: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis at the Royal Albert Hall, Thursday 7 October 2021. It felt intimate and personal, even in a crowd. An unforgettable reminder of why live music is worth fighting for.
What do you consider to be the most important ideas and concepts to impart to aspiring musicians?
This is going to be hard. Really, really hard. Nobody will hold your hand. Don’t wait for help. There will be times when you feel completely alone, or like you are hitting your head against a brick wall. But there will also be brief glimpses of moments when it all makes sense and something beautiful reveals itself. In those moments, you will know why.
Released on 12 November 2021, “Gold.Berg.Werk” is a radical re-interpretation of J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations by Austrian composer Karlheinz Essl, performed by pianist Xenia Pestova Bennett, with live electronic diffusion by Ed Bennett. The Goldberg Variations form a cornerstone of keyboard repertoire yet we rarely question the mode of presentation for this work. Here, Essl offers a refreshing glimpse of a new performance practice: gorgeous time-stretched harmonies are manipulated in real time and played back through spatialised loudspeakers in between the piano variations, bringing together Baroque and contemporary sound worlds.
Xenia Pestova Bennett is an innovative performer and educator. Described as “a powerhouse of contemporary keyboard repertoire” (Tempo), “stunning” (Wales Arts Review), “ravishing” (Pizzicato) and “remarkably sensuous” (New Zealand Herald) in the international press, she has earned a reputation as a leading interpreter of uncompromising repertoire alongside masterpieces from the past.
Image Credit: © Dimitri Djuric