Eclectic Piano Man, Ebullient Tony-Winner

Classical pianist Simon Ghraichy. | JEAN-FRANÇOIS MELER

Classical pianist Simon Ghraichy. | JEAN-FRANÇOIS MELER

BY DAVID NOH | Classical pianist Simon Ghraichy returns to Carnegie Hall on October 14 with a concert entitled “My Hispanic Heritage.” The gay, toweringly tall, lean, multi-ethnic musician with a tumbleweed of hair made quite a visual impression when I interviewed him, but it was nothing compared to the impact when he sat down at the piano and, just for me, played Arturo Márquez’s brilliantly spirited “Danzón No.2.” As the French say, quel rush!

“I feel so blessed,” he told me. “Last year at this time, I was invited to play at Carnegie Hall’s smaller Kurt Weill space, and, right after the concert, I got the invitation to come back, this time to the larger Zankel Hall. It’s everybody’s dream to play Carnegie even once, so this is already a big deal thing for me.

“It’s now all about my Mexican roots. I’m a mix of little things and minorities: Lebanese, a little Jewish, very much French. This concert is all part of National Hispanic Heritage Month. I love this music, and I think it’s my duty to play this music because it’s not very often played.

“I’m based in Paris, but with my diverse cultural background and diverse music I play, I feel at home everywhere in the world, like here in New York, which is such a melting pot.”

Simon Ghraichy pounds the ivories at Carnegie; Christine Ebersole sings of her empty nest

Ghraichy began piano when he was four: “We had a piano at home — not a grand but an old upright which had been in the family for generations. I would go and babble on it without knowing what I was doing, trying in an awkward way with two or three fingers, trying to recapture songs I had learned in school. So my parents thought, ‘This kid has a special gift for music.’ They were not musicians at all, my father is a lawyer and my mother is a psychiatrist.

“Although they pushed me to the piano, they never thought this would be a career to which I would dedicate my life. Eventually, when I decided to become a musician at age 17, it was a tough time for them because every parent, no matter how open-minded, wants their child to be on the right track. It took me some time to convince them but now they are very proud of me and follow me all over the world.

“I did the Conservatory in Paris, then a two-year master’s program in Helsinki because I met an exciting teacher who taught me both how to be pianist and also how to be a philosopher and poet of the music. She was like a guide throughout my whole life, not just one hour’s practice. I then started my career by touring, which led to Carnegie Hall. I think curiosity is a big part of the career. It does not fall from the sky, and it’s not luck. You have to be curious and look for opportunity and I never refused a job in my entire career, no matter how tiny or senseless it looked, especially in the beginning. And that’s how I met very important people, in some of the smallest opportunities. Actually, one of my best supporters here in the States I met in a small opportunity in France 12 years ago and the relationship developed, and it is through him that I signed with Universal Music, am playing Carnegie, and recording for Deutsche Grammophon. So I think curiosity and humbleness are most important for the career. [Without supportive people,] it’s a lonely career so it’s important to have a mainstay. You’re sitting alone at your piano practicing, sitting on the stage alone, and traveling alone.

Ghraichy loves Rachmaninoff, Brahms, Debussy, and Beethoven, “but Liszt is my favorite and I already did two records dedicated to him. With Liszt I think it was love at first sight. One has an almost human relationship with various composers. You need some time with some composers to get acquainted, but some choose you and Liszt chose me from age 12. I was totally in love with other composers — Chopin, Schubert, Beethoven, there was something higher. This composer’s music was very virtuosic and coincided with my gaining more virtuosity, and it fit me well. It’s very virtuosic but it’s not circus music, with a lot of death and love and communicating such a great range of feeling and emotion.

“My curiosity drives me to look for new repertoire like these Spanish and Latin American composers. There are real jewels that need to be brought to the table for the public. Arturo Márquez, whom I’m playing at the very end of the concert, wrote just an amazing piece by classical rules at the same time using Mexican popular inspiration which gives it something intellectual but at the same time you feel you’re on the streets of Mexico City with all the percussion and dancing. It’s very accessible, which I feel all music should be like.”

I told Ghraichy that if I did what he does for a living, I know I would be absolutely paranoid about anything happening to my hands:

“[Laughs] They are insured and very expensive. It also stands to reason that all the money in the world couldn’t give me back my talent if I lost it. Insurance is a pragmatic way of saying that if something happens, I would still be able to have a living.

“But everything I do, like even preparing this coffee for you today, I have to be extra careful. If you notice I have a little bruise here on the little finger. I was practicing so much and wildly for Carnegie and I hit my finger on the piano. It’s hurting a bit now; that’s the cheapest finger by the way in terms of being insured. The thumb is the most expensive because if you lose your thumb, you lose the balance of your hand because the four fingers go out to the same place.

“When I was studying in Finland, I fell down on the ice and I wasn’t insured, at 21. I was wearing a steel watch and my left hand got a shock, which hurt me a lot, a trauma, but I luckily recovered. Watches, by the way, are now forbidden by insurance companies, as are rings. So if I get married one day, I will still look single forever.”

Ghraichy’s favorite pianist is Vladimir Horowitz, whom I used to see gawking at the boys at Studio 54, happy as a clam: “He lived a long time through different things from Communist Russia to the most liberal America. He died in 1989 — not long ago, but still a different era. I think he was very modern in his approach to music and life, and had a little something of the dandy or rock star about him. I think we need that these days. Musicians need to live with modernity even though we play old music. We shouldn’t live in a different era, and we have to use what we have, which is social media, the modern way to communicate. He didn’t have all this media, but he still had this kind of star fever more than anyone, which was unusual at the time.”

About the question of Horowitz being gay, Ghraichy remarked, “He was once asked if he was gay, and he said, ‘There are Jewish musicians. There are gay musicians. And there are bad musicians.’ I think it was a very appropriate answer.”

Ghraichy, asked what’s next given his success and the fact he’s reached his 30s, said, “Now my ambition is transition. I’ve been concentrating on myself, so now that I’m fulfilling my own wishes, it is time to give a hand to the younger generation. I was lucky when I was young to be surrounded by the right people, and now that I’ve achieved what I’d always dreamed of, I think it’s my turn to pull younger generations to where I am, giving master classes and helping to educate them.

“We live in such an exciting time. Such incredible advancements for social equality and tolerance. There are so many fabulous attributes in the mix that make me the man and artist that I am. Of course, all of these attributes feed into my music. I am Mexican, French, Lebanese, Jewish, gay, and 6’6” when my coif is at full-fluff. It’s 2016, and the world seems to be embracing diversity in new and exciting ways. This is why I love New York so much. This city has always been so far ahead of the curve. New York has always celebrated diversity and understood that the fabulous things that make us different are the fabulous things that bring us together.”

Tony-winner Christine Ebersole. | COURTESY: BLAKE ZIDELL & ASSOCIATES

Tony-winner Christine Ebersole. | COURTESY: BLAKE ZIDELL & ASSOCIATES

The incandescently ebullient Christine Ebersole has returned to the Cafe Carlyle (35 E. 76th St., through Oct. 22; with a new show she describes as “radically different from the last one I did at 54 Below, which was more rock-oriented. This one has material that is more classical, lots of standards like ‘After the Ball’ and ‘When I Grow Too Old to Dream.’ Its theme is the ‘Empty Nest Syndrome,’ as I have three kids who are now all in college. So, I’ve gotta work! [Laughs.]”

One thing you can always be sure of with an Ebersole gig is the impeccable song selection, not to mention her glorious, wide-ranging, and silver bell-like voice.

“Marc Shaiman was my accompanist for my very first cabaret show, and I have always relied on [his partner] Scott Wittman to help me with the act, as he’s great with song selection and just knows everything. He’s been so increasingly busy over the years, with everything, that he’s less able to help me, but I always make the effort to run over what I have with him.”

Mama may say she’s gone back to work, but the truth is she never stopped from the day she quit her job waitressing at the Lion’s Rock Restaurant when she first arrived in New York to take the role of Nancy, the surly Cockney maid in “Angel Street,” in the 1975 revival starring Dina Merrill. Ironically, her last Broadway appearance was in 2009’s “Blithe Spirit,” co-starring Angela Lansbury — who, with her magnificently multi-varied character work in film and stage, from “Mame” to “Gypsy” to “Sweeney Todd,” is the greatest living actress. Ironic because Lansbury’s very first film role, for which she received an Academy Award nomination at 18, was as Nancy in “Gaslight,” George Cukor’s classic screen adaptation of “Angel Street.”

Asked what working with Lansbury was like, Ebersole enthused, “Wonderful, and the consummate professional who set the bar very high for the rest of the cast, She never missed a single performance, so, even if I was feeling sick, I would still go on, because Angela surely would.”

Ebersole recently finished a Chicago run of the musical “War Paint,” which was about the highly competitive relationship between two redoubtable cosmetics queens, Elizabeth Arden (Ebersole) and Helena Rubinstein (Patti LuPone). Although praise was heaped on the two formidable divas, the play got decidedly mixed reviews and may or may not reach Broadway. Ebersole thoroughly enjoyed working with LuPone “and my ‘Grey Gardens’ musical team Scott Frankel and Michael Korie. And my Catherine Zuber costumes were fabulous!”

Ebersole may well be reunited with Korie in the upcoming “Flying Over Sunset,” along with writer/ director James Lapine. The premise is a particularly intriguing one, involving Clare Booth Luce, Aldous Huxley, and Cary Grant during their highly publicized psychological experimentation with LSD in the 1950s.