Shivank Menon, pianist

Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in music and who or what have been the most important influences on your musical life and career?

Music, in itself, has always been my sanctuary.

My teachers have been some of the strongest influences on my musical life. For a few years, I was practising without any instruction, at a time in which I probably needed instruction. Later on, when I began to have lessons, over time, I began to internalise the importance of detailed work and thought-out interpretation. I believe the credit for this is due to my teachers, especially Alberto L. Ferro, who showed me the ocean of depth that exists even in the relatively simple works of great masters.

Moreover, music, in itself, has always been my sanctuary. The cathartic power of listening to, say, Beethoven’s last piano sonata or Chopin’s Polonaise Fantaisie always bowls me over entirely, leaving me with a burning desire to bring myself closer to this music that I love so dearly. In essence, the music itself persuades me to put my time into it.

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

I would say that COVID-19 has been the greatest challenge of my career so far, because of the tremendous limitations it placed on concert, and even recording, opportunities at the crucial starting point of my musical journey. Within these limitations, I did try some things. For instance, I remotely recorded an arrangement of Bill Evans’ Peace Piece, with clarinettist Mark Buckingham and drummer Uira Nogueira.

Which performances/recordings are you most proud of?

I am most proud of my improvised trio variations on a theme of Paginini, with cellist Shirley Smart and clarinettist Mark Buckingham. Perhaps more so due to the efforts of collaborators than my own, it came out surprisingly cohesive yet varied for a work that is almost entirely spontaneously created.

Paganini Caprice A Minor – Shivank Menon Piano Trio Improvisation

What do you do off stage that provides inspiration on stage?

I think that literature provides great inspiration. Specifically, fiction helps one grasp a sense of narrative that carries itself over to the broad grasp of musical structure. The books that have particularly made an impression on me have been Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Furthermore, the memory of the recordings of great pianists provides some of the most concrete inspiration for my playing.

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

Any venue where the audience is listening.

I would really love to play in Wigmore Hall. Not only are the acoustics great, the hall itself is ornate to the extent that it is aesthetically appealing, but not to the extent that it appears gaudy or overdone. Thus, it complements music rather than distracting from it. The cupola, showing a metaphorical scene depicting humanity’s perpetual struggle grasping something as powerful yet abstract as music, creates a kind of religiosity as if it the hall is itself a temple dedicated to music.

What do you feel needs to be done to grow classical music’s audiences?

In mainstream society, attending a classical music concert is perceived as a symbol of one’s class privilege and social status, rather than as a meaningful visceral experience in itself. In this sense, its audience remains generally limited to two primary groups: those who already love and enjoy classical music and those who want to look posh. Hence, I propose that the primary goal must be to shed this vapid perception. To do this, the contexts surrounding classical music performances must expand beyond the traditional concert. This is not to say that the traditional formal concert must be abandoned but rather that it should not remain the be-all and end-all of classical music. This could mean multiple things, perhaps, a different sort of classical music venue(see for example, Yellow Lounge), or a less formal concert interspersed with the musician’s own spoken commentary(see for example, the concerts of James Rhodes). The possibilities are endless.

Another issue is that oftentimes classical music is viewed as an island separate from other genres. On a purely historical level, this is false as we may observe that a clear dialectical relationship existed between the works of classical composers and the non-classical emerging or already-existing contemporary musics of their times. Thus, classical musicians must critically engage with the varieties of music today. Think back to Friedrich Gulda, who not only worked with Jazz fusion musicians of the likes of Joe Zwainul, Chick Correa, amongst others, but also had the courage to play in his concerts, alongside Bach and Mozart, his own rather jazz and pop-inspired compositions. In short, classical music needs an openness towards other genres to flourish in itself.

What is your most memorable concert experience?

Watching Daniil Trifonov in Barbican Hall, playing Beethoven, Schumann, and Prokofiev was certainly an experience I cannot forget. The sheer power of sonic expression, especially towards the end of the third movement of Prokofiev’s 8th Piano Sonata, left an indelible impression in my mind.

As a musician, what is your definition of success

Success is being in a position where you are constantly improving and are comfortably able to strive towards a more refined form of your art.

What’s the one thing in the music industry we’re not talking about which you think we should be?

I think that not enough attention is paid to older recordings. Everyone is always looking for newer musicians, often neglecting some of the greatest masters of the past. For me, twentieth century (especially those from its earlier decades) piano recordings were very influential. Listening hours on end to the recordings of Alfred Cortot, Samson Francois, Dinu Lipatti, Moritz Rosenthal, Vladimir De Pachmann, amongst others, taught me precious lessons about piano playing. In particular, the individuality of phrasing, articulation, and artistic decisions in general, is something that contrasts the safer, more technically precise approach more commonly taken by musicians today. Thus, I think it is important that we talk more about the older recordings.

Mumbai-born pianist Shivank Menon made his London debut in the esteemed Blüthner concert series at the Lansdowne Club in Mayfair on October 11th 2022.