Take a moment, won’t you, and listen to Cyrill Ibrahim? Not his music, mind you — although the classically-trained pianist works wonders with 88 keys, and you’d do a lot worse than putting his spin through Bach’s Partita No.2 on your Spotify rotation. First, though, the performer has an opinion he’d like to voice; a musical musing that, try as he tunefully might, has been falling on deaf ears.
“There’s a sense,” says the pianist, “that you must be well-educated to enjoy classical music. And that’s not true at all. That’s why I’m trying to find a new and more exciting approach. The job, is to inspire a new generation of people — who may not be connected to classical music. Because it isn’t for an elite. Really. It’s so, so human.”
It may be an unenviable task, but there are few better choices to champion the classical cause than Ibrahim. Why? Because he’s not your typical prodigy.
Granted, there may be a Master of Performance degree from the Royal College of Music under the lid of his concert grand (Steinway, naturally), but he’s not the shy, highly-strung stereotype of a classical musician. He doesn’t hide behind heaving sheaves of sheet music, or only chime in when conversation turns to concertos. Instead, he fizzes with charisma — and there’s as much charm in that cordial smile as there is talent in those octave-spanning fingers.
“It’s my life,” he beams. “And I’ve always had this dream of being on stage. It’s kind of magical — a piano on a stage in the dark. Just one instrument; one person. Beautiful!”
“And,” he adds, “when you’re performing, there are moments when you, the audience and the music become one. You take the concentration of the audience in your hand, and can show them these beautiful worlds created by composers. Oh-so magical.”
The way Ibrahim describes the experience is almost musical in itself; rhapsodising elegantly and effortlessly about his work. It’s part-passion, part-profession. “And, as a pianist,” he says, “you’re an interpreter. You must just try to pass the music on. If it’s an ego thing, if you’re showing off, it doesn’t work.”
Thankfully, ego isn’t an issue. The pianist’s grandfather, a tailor from Dutch Guiana, instilled in Ibrahim a love for sharp suiting. But Ibrahim soon realised that dressing up for every performance would do little to dispel the buttoned-up reputation of classical music. So, for fear of alienating his audience, he forgoes ties and tailcoats for the greater musical good.
“Hundreds of years ago, composers wrote these incredible works of art,” he explains. “And all civilisation got was black dots on a piece of paper. So, together, we must find a way to unravel that”.
“And this music wouldn’t survive without the artists,” Ibrahim adds. “It’s not like a piece of art hanging in a museum. It lives and breathes. We relearn and rediscover these pieces. People go to concerts and listen to pieces they’ve heard performed before. And that’s because different artists can say different things with the same music.”
It’s a compelling case — and Ibrahim implores everybody he meets to give classical music a go. He asks that we take a chance on shuffling up our playlists, adding a symphony here, or a sonata there. Don’t expect it to be entertaining, he warns — “it requires a lot of concentration” — but he guarantees that the rewards are there to be reaped.
“This music helps us — it does something to our brains. But we need to find a new approach to classical music. Young people need to feel like they can be a part of it — because it’s really powerful when that happens. When that happens, it’s incredibly special. It enriches a life.”
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