Grant stepping down as ballet solo pianist

Like James Bond, Cameron Grant will return. But the adventures will be a little different next time
Cameron Grant in rehearsal with the New York City Ballet (Erin Balano)
Cameron Grant in rehearsal with the New York City Ballet (Erin Balano)

Like James Bond, Cameron Grant will return.

But the adventures will be a little different next time around. Grant has played his last piece as soloist for the New York City Ballet Orchestra.

Grant will be at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center this afternoon, performing with the orchestra on three of the four ballets at the 2 p.m. matinee performance of “Classic NYCB III” — Justin Peck’s “Scherzo Fantastique,” Peter Martins’ “Barber Violin Concerto” and Jerome Robbins’ “Fancy Free.”

Grant had been scheduled to solo during “American Rhapsody,” but a late dancer injury has forced the ballet to scratch the Christopher Wheeldon piece from the show. Alexei Ratmansky’s “Concerto DSCH” will be performed instead.

After the ballet wraps up its season at SPAC tonight — “Jewels” will be the 8 p.m. finale — Grant will still have a spot with the company, as orchestra pianist.

Ballet and music fans know the 65-year-old musician’s work.

Grant joined the New York City Ballet in 1984, became a solo pianist in 1986 and was named pianist of the New York City Ballet Orchestra in 1998. He has performed all the company’s major piano ballets, such as “Goldberg Variations” and George Ballanchine’s “Davidsbundlertanze.”

The career has been star-spangled. Grant has been the soloist in ballet premieres by Richard Tanner, Robert La Fosse and Christopher Wheeldon. He’s toured as a featured performer with the company on trips to Paris, Edinburgh, Athens, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Italy, Russia and Denmark. He has performed before the president at the Kennedy Center Honors.

“I’ve been doing the rehearsals and the solo and the orchestra job now for a couple of decades, and it’s just a lot,” Grant said in a telephone interview on Thursday. “It’s a heavy load and I’m tired. I’m just going to cut back to doing the orchestra stuff. Some days I’d go in at 9:30 or 10 in the morning and I’d be playing a concerto 12 hours later. I’m getting to the age where that’s a tough slog, to be mentally alert at that hour.”

A gig as orchestra pianist will save Grant a lot of time. Every season, the solo pianist rehearses with dancers two or three weeks before the show opens.

“All that time, I wouldn’t be committed,” Grant said. “I’m going from probably 43 weeks a year or more with tours and stuff down to 26 weeks maybe.”

Grant received his first taste of classical music as a kid growing up in Denver, Colorado. His teacher was Antonia Brico, the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.

“By some stroke of luck, she ended up in Denver and she was teaching piano students,” Grant said. “I ended up taking piano with her when I was five. She was all about classical, that’s all there was, and that’s what I learned.”

Grant never strayed into other genres. He likes jazz, but not enough to break out a little “Mood Indigo” on the keys.

“Those guys are pretty specialized too, and they don’t really go into my territory either,” he said. “I tell you what I’m good at — I’m good at reading stuff off a page but when it comes to sitting down and improvising, I’m a dodo. I mean, I love that stuff, I go hear those guys and I’m just blown away. But it’s not a talent I have.”

Grant worked with great music and great dancers. He’ll always remember times playing piano with the company dancers — “When it was just the dancers and myself working together, no ballet masters, no boss, no other stuff, but just the dancers and me, collaborating to get the best product, that’s a pretty exciting experience.”

Solo work for the soloist also paid off.

“What I think I most enjoy is the work in the studio myself, trying to dig a little deeper into the music to solve a little more of the problems,” he said. “I think part of my leaving is that I felt like I’ve really done that with a whole bunch of the repertoire. I’ve played everything a lot of times so I just feel it’s kind of a good time to wrap it up and hand the baton to somebody else.”

With somebody else holding the baton, Grant expects to see more of his grandchildren. He also expects to see more of the country. “My wife Helena is determined to have an RV and drive around the country,” Grant said.

The memories will travel with him. Sometimes, at the conclusion of the Goldberg Variations, Grant would hit the final notes with tears in his eyes.

“I feel like, ‘Who gets to play this stuff, again and again?’ ” he said. “I felt lucky every time I finished that piece. My life was a little bit different, a little bit enriched, because it’s such a masterpiece.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at [email protected] or @jeffwilkin1 on Twitter. His blog is at

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