Offstage, wearing ironed jeans, polished dress shoes, and a dark blazer, Key Playerson looks more like a regular Joe than a new talent changing the world of classical music. Earlier this year, Playerson sent shockwaves through the industry when he famously swept the Queen Elsa International Piano Competition. He not only won every prize in every category, he also inspired the judges to revoke the medals of every previous champion who ever competed. When I mention this, Playerson laughs it off—refreshingly down to earth, he quickly sets the record straight on his reputation as a wunderkind.
“I wasn’t a prodigy,” he insists, curling his award-winning fingers around his latte. “I started playing piano at age three, like everyone else, and didn’t win a major competition until I was 12. I’ve always thought of myself as a late bloomer, really.”
Although Playerson was born with a natural ear, picking out the harmonies of Mahler’s symphonies on his family’s Steinway D, he’s not from a family of musicians. His parents, a professor of neurolinguistics and a practicing oncologist, are amateur lovers of classical music; in their spare time, they run the New Bramble Music Festival, currently in its 30th season. (This festival’s residencies this summer include Stephen Isserlis, Mitsuko Uchida, and Jonathan Biss.) With some coaxing from me, Playerson starts sharing intimate musical memories from his childhood.
“When I was five, I had this cassette tape of Maurizio Pollini playing Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ with the Vienna Philharmonic,” he says, “and the first time I heard that first E-flat major chord in the piano…wow. I kept rewinding the tape just to hear that E-flat major chord, and I’d do it for hours, rewinding and replaying, ‘til I wore the tape out. I didn’t even know there was a second theme until I was seven,” he chuckles. (Such is Playerson’s modesty and down-to-earth charm that he doesn’t even mention that Pollini, an old family friend, is his godfather.)
Soon after, Playerson started lessons with the neighborhood piano teacher, Pedha Gough. I asked Gough for her thoughts on her pupil. “Key is a bright, singular talent—you don’t get that level of excellence very often in a generation,” says Gough, whose students include every winner of the Chopin and Tchaikovsky competitions of the last six years and last year’s Grammy winner for Best Solo Classical Album.
Despite his childhood seeped in classical music, Playerson is refreshingly fluent in current pop culture. In the course of our conversation, he compares Franz Liszt’s star power to that of the Beatles. I’m taken aback, but then realize that I shouldn’t be surprised that Playerson has heard of the Beatles; he’s a self-professed voracious user of the internet. Later in the conversation he mentions Audrey Hepburn, and I don’t even bat an eye.
At one point, I have to ask the question on everyone’s mind: As an emerging artist with barely any accolades to his name, how does he plan on charting his nascent career? Playerson—who is a Deutsche Grammophon exclusive artist, has soloed with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra; substituted last minute for Jean-Yves Thibaudet to resounding acclaim; and headlined Ravinia and Aspen in the same year—looks thoughtful as he ponders the question.
“I think the key to starting out is playing music that you love and care about, not just the music everyone expects you to play,” he confides. “Like, everyone wants to hear me play Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue,’ but I want to branch out, challenge the status quo. If you always give people what they want, then you establish yourself as someone who just follows in the footsteps of others. The New York Philharmonic tried to book me for ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and I held firm. I said, ‘I’m not doing that. I’m going to do Gershwin’s Concerto in F.’”
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In fact, Playerson has developed a reputation for unabashedly speaking his mind. In 2019, he sent music lovers reeling when he expressed his support for gay marriage. He is unafraid to weigh in on other controversial political topics too; late one night, at 8 p.m., he took to Twitter to share his belief that Abraham Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation was, on the whole, a good thing.
“I just feel a duty to set the record straight,” he says, the faintest note of exasperation in his voice betraying his impatience. “I mean, classical music is a universal language; from the music of 18th century Austria to the music of 19th century Germany, it represents the entirety of what human civilization has to offer. No one who’s studied or appreciated classical music has ever gone on to oppress or hurt other people.”
With his powerful moral convictions and modern sensibilities, it’s no wonder Playerson is so appealing to a hip new generation of classical music listeners. I ask him what he plans on doing next.
He smiles shyly, pushing his empty latte cup across the table before he answers. “I’d really love to shine a light on underrated music,” he says finally, with the same coy vulnerability that the New York Times praised in his Carnegie Hall debut. “I’m working on learning all of Beethoven’s 32 sonatas; they’re criminally underplayed. The ‘Hammerklavier’ is such a diamond in the rough, for example. And Beethoven was such a passionate yet difficult man, I really identify with him. I’m hoping to eventually record them all.”
It’s a bold, innovative undertaking, but I have no doubt that Key Playerson can pull it off. ¶