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Pianist Paul Lewis, from Beethoven to Monty Python

July 12, 2009 | 11:15 am

Paul In April I went to the Standard hotel in downtown L.A. to meet Paul Lewis, a British piano soloist who had just performed Mozart at Walt Disney Concert Hall the night before. I expected a remote, perhaps self-absorbed character: On the covers of his albums, he’s a brooding figure against a dark background, and he’s written about the strain and emotional agony it takes to play late Beethoven.

But Lewis turned out to be easygoing, and, in person, looked as if he were headed to a Renaissance fair.

We discussed his growing up in a household with no classical music, his dedication to Beethoven (of course), the importance of earning “belief” in your own sound, the tendency for young pianists to fall in love with the thunderous approach of Glenn Gould -- and the importance of moving away from his all-too-powerful influence.

As I stood to leave, I mentioned something about the British television show “The Office,” and found myself in a sophisticated conversation about the tradition of British humor from Shakespeare to Monty Python to Steve Coogan to Ricky Gervais, and to the American “Office.”

My experience with classical musicians is often that the demands of practicing and endless travel make them culturally isolated, so I was surprised by Lewis’ range.

I spoke to an old friend of the pianist, L.A.-based violinist Songa Lee. “I missed Paul’s wild years,” she said jokingly. But she said that even in the hothouse atmosphere of their conservatory, the Chetham’s School of Music, Lewis was never one to put on airs. “Really with two feet on the ground -- that’s how he’s always been. And he’s still, ‘Hey, how you doing?’ There’s been no transformation.”

Read my story about Lewis, who appears at the Hollywood Bowl this Tuesday and Thursday, in Sunday's Arts & Books section.

-- Scott Timberg

Above: Paul Lewis. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times

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