Pianist overcomes disability to return to stage

05/09/2014 5:56 PM

05/09/2014 5:57 PM

When British pianist Nick van Bloss walks on stage Friday in Miami Beach, the audience is unlikely to notice anything out of the ordinary.

There will be no sign of what the British media wrote about so much — the affliction that led to the nightmarish bullying through school, and that led him to withdraw from the concert stage, get rid of his piano and hole up for years in Portugal.

Van Bloss, who will perform as part of the Miami International Piano Festival, suffers from Tourette syndrome, a neurological disorder that causes spasms, vocalizations and tics that he struggles to keep under control. He wasn’t diagnosed until he was 21, which made for a difficult, lonely childhood.

“There were so many years of being stigmatized and bullied and humiliated as a kid, and those years stay with you as you grow up,” he said in a telephone interview from his home in London. “They really scar you for life. So it took me a hell of a long time to see the positive.”

Van Bloss grew up in a Bohemian household in London, his mother a writer, his father an engineer. For a concert pianist, he came late to the instrument, beginning lessons at 11.

So how can someone with such a lack of control over basic body movements avoid turning Chopin, Beethoven and Mozart into discordant mush?

It all goes away when he sits down at the keyboard, a phenomenon that’s considered quite typical among people with the disorder. He progressed at an astonishing pace, and entered the Royal College of Music at 15. He entered contests, won prizes and appeared likely to be at least a contender for a major international career — such things are never guaranteed in a crowded field. But handling the pressure of concertizing and practice while struggling with his neurological demon became too much.

“I was dealing with Tourette’s, which was ferociously aggressive at the time and therefore extremely exhausting,” he said. “I would sit and play piano for six or seven hours, and afterwards, instead of having ‘me’ time, quiet time and down time, I would be shaking and that would exhaust me further.”

The breaking point came at the Chopin Festival in Warsaw. He played his heart out in Chopin and Schumann and came away exhausted, more from the Tourette’s than from the performances.

“I threw in the towel, but it wasn’t throwing in the towel out of weakness,” he said. “I think it was a huge leap of faith and act of strength to say, you know what? I love playing, I love performing, but I also love myself and I don’t think I can actually live with the body that’s doing this to me. I just felt terribly depressed and terribly dissatisfied with the body I couldn’t control. The whole thing was a bit too much. I was tired.”

Tourette’s usually appears in childhood, with tics such as squinting, grimacing, arm jerking, grunting or yelling. Contrary to the popular image, fewer than 10 percent of people with Tourette’s swear uncontrollably. In the United States, Tourette’s affects three of every 1,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17, with males three times more likely to get it than females, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. There is no cure, although medication and behavioral treatment can help. Many people with Tourette’s control it so effectively that others don’t know they have it.

Dr. Michael Okun, chairman of the Tourette Syndrome Association Medical Advisory Board and professor of neurology at the University of Florida Center for Movement Disorders and Neurorestoration, said it’s not surprising that van Bloss’ symptoms vanish at the keyboard, even though the precise neurological reasons for this are not entirely understood.

“It’s absolutely consistent with Tourette’s,” he said. “It can go away during sleep, during periods of low stress or while playing a musical instrument. There’s a professional soccer player in Britain whose Tourette’s goes away while he’s playing.”

Also common was the failure to diagnose van Bloss’ condition until he was 21. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that story,” Okun said. “The kids get in trouble in school and they can’t sit still and they get treated differently. If everybody knew what was going on, these kids would grow up and do well. These are highly capable young people that have all the potential in the world to do great things. But it ruins a lot of lives. People think of people with brain diseases as dumb, and it’s just not true.”

After withdrawing from the race to become a concert pianist, van Bloss moved to Lisbon with his partner, a lawyer. He got rid of his piano. He immersed himself in opera, an experience that he said made him a better pianist, when the time came.

Without any particular goal other than to make people understand what it was like to live with this disorder, he wrote a book about his experience. “It was never going to be Harry Potter, nor did I want to write a misery memoir — poor little me, I feel sorry for myself,” he said. “I just wanted to describe what it’s like because no one has really done so. It’s a very misunderstood condition. I wrote it in three weeks. It was very bizarre — that’s again a kind of Tourette’s thing, once you get obsessed with something you just do it until you do it.”

The book led to a BBC documentary. From the book and documentary, van Bloss received hundreds of emails. One came from a financier interested in sponsoring his return to the concert stage. Unsure he wanted to take that step immediately, the pianist suggested starting with the recording studio. He recorded Bach’s Goldberg Variations, a monument of the keyboard repertoire that has a reputation for attracting the obsessive and the unusual among pianists, most famously Glenn Gould.

He might have remained only an artistic curiosity and inspiring musical footnote if not for the quality of his playing. “Pianist Nick van Bloss shot to fame thanks to his struggle with Tourette syndrome, but this CD will dispel any doubts about the level of his artistry,” wrote a critic in The Daily Telegraph.

His first live performance was awaited eagerly, even nervously. “There have been times in the past when I’ve felt anxious about a performer,” wrote Ivan Hewett of the Daily Telegraph. “But never have I been on such tenterhooks as last night at Cadogan Hall in London, where pianist Nick van Bloss played not one but two concertos with the English Chamber Orchestra.”

The concert was a success, however, and further engagements and recordings followed.

He came to the attention of Giselle Brodsky, co-founder and artistic director of the Miami International Piano Festival, through a writer who had profiled the festival for The New York Times. Brodsky was interested. But like the London critics, she took an unsentimental line toward the prospective soloist.

“Listen, I would never invite someone because I wanted a story in the paper because of his struggle with Tourette’s,” she said. “I mean I’m very happy that he’s doing that, but first and foremost he has to be a great pianist.”

Sent an advance copy of his recording of the Goldberg Variations, she said, “I was just blown away. I was driving and I had to stop driving because the emotional force behind everything he did was so powerful.”

Brodsky flew to London and spent three hours with him. To her surprise, “There was not a sign of the Tourette’s, not a twitch, nothing. I said to Nick, how do you do this, and he said it takes a tremendous amount of effort, and after he does this he has to close himself off in his apartment to build his strength.”

For his U.S. debut at the Miami Piano Festival, van Bloss and Brodsky settled on the Goldberg Variations and two works by Mozart: the Fantasy in C minor K. 396 and Sonata in C minor K. 457.

“Mozart is so rarely programmed in piano recitals,” van Bloss said. “I don’t feel exposed playing Mozart. I know a lot of pianists do — they think, Where do I go with Mozart, there’s not enough in it. But for me, all of it’s there, the emotion is there, it’s just restrained. It’s basically operatic writing, it’s a miniature of all his operas.”

Today the pianist spends a lot of time in the recording studio. His recording of Beethoven’s mammoth Diabelli Variations for Nimbus Records is about to be released. He is currently recording Mozart and Beethoven sonatas, as well as a Mozart concertos. He lives in a big house with a small dog in the North London neighborhood of Muswell Hill. He studies scores through the night.

“I find the night very quiet and very peaceful, very inspiring,” he said. “I’m somewhat of an insomniac. I sleep a few hours and then I’m up.”

For complete coverage of classical music, go to SouthFloridaClassicalReview.com.

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