Austrian multi-percussionist Martin Grubinger plays anything from chamber music and contemporary classical to salsa and rock. He has performed with orchestras from all over the world – the Berliner Philharmoniker, the BBC Philharmonic, the New York Philharmonic, just to mention a few – but was also the interval act at the Grand Final of the Eurovision Song Contest. Composers such as HK Gruber, Olga Neuwirth and Peter Eötvös have written concertos for him and his ensemble, created together with his percussionist father. He is also a Professor of Multi-percussion, and leads a music magazine on German television.

His infectious positive energy is immediately evident when we talk on the phone, his friendly and upbeat tone lighting up a rather gloomy London afternoon.

Martin Grubinger
© Simon Pauly
“I was born with percussion,” he tells me. “We always had instruments at home and my father is a real enthusiast. I remember his students coming to our house and I always tried to listen in on the lessons. I was fascinated by how cool all these guys were when they played the drums and I just wanted to do the same. I played the recorder, the double bass and the piano, but percussion was always part of my life.”

A quick look on Youtube reveals how Grubinger can make music with anything, from a glockenspiel to a garden fence, but with a personal collection of hundreds of instruments – all kept at home like family – it's hard to play favourites. “It depends on which piece I am preparing for the next concert, or sometimes on the mood of the day. I might get up in the morning wanting to play the marching drums, the marimba or the vibraphone, but in the end it’s the variety of possibilities [that I like], not just of instruments but also of styles. My main focus is on contemporary classical, but I also like African drumming, Afro-Cuban music, Taiko drumming, salsa, samba, tango, funk, rock, pop, jazz, fusion… there are so many, and in all of them percussion has a main role. I love to improvise, to develop new instruments… With percussion there's always a new goal to reach.”

An example of this versatility can be seen in a score that Grubinger has often described as “the perfect piece”. “Pléïades from Iannis Xenakis is a percussion symphony,” he explains. “It's 60-minute long, four movements, and in the second he asks performers to use a sixxen.” The composer explains what it is, which materials should be used, but the instructions purposely leave room for interpretation.
“It was so fascinating to us to develop it,” says Grubinger. “Xenakis gifts the performers with the possibility to create their own instrument, so if you watch different videos of this piece, you will discover that everybody uses different ones. This is one example, but there are so many possibilities, and this is what makes percussion so special.”

As is the case for sportsmen, the level of fitness needed to be a percussionist require strict physical training, due to the often strenuous nature of the performances. “During a concert in Frankfurt, two months ago, we made a test to see what are the physical stats of a percussionist playing on stage. We were quite surprised because the maximum heart rate recorded was 198, and the average heart rate was 165, and these stats can be compared to those of football players. When at home I try to exercise every day. Nowadays we have a lot of snow in Austria, so I do a lot of skiing.”

At least Grubinger is not alone in his musical marathons. In his band, the Percussive Planet, he performs alongside his father, his friends and students.

“We had the idea for this ensemble 15 years ago, my father and I, on a car drive to Switzerland. We thought it would be cool to create an ensemble which showed to the audience the variety of the percussion world, not just the instruments but also all the players and of course the repertoire. We invited percussionists from all around the world, from Venezuela, Burkina Faso, Brazil, Chile, Morocco, Turkey, to create different projects with us. We wanted to play contemporary music but we integrated in our programme whatever we thought could be fun, including brass players to perform big band stuff. Playing with this ensemble is really fun because with many of them we have been good friends for two decades and we share the same fascination for music. We just created a new programme that integrates music by Bach, John Williams, Stravinsky but also rock, funk and pop, to show our audience that music has no borders, and that especially percussion is a global instrument, influenced by so many traditions and cultures.”

One of the artists who performs with Percussive Planet is acclaimed pianist Yuja Wang. “I met Yuja in 2012 at Beethovenfest in Bonn. She came backstage after my concert and said: “Martin, we have to work together. I think that could be so much fun.” So we created different arrangements for this combination, piano and percussion. Yuja's father is a percussionist so she is really into percussion. It’s just a real joy to perform with her on stage, because she plays a little bit like a percussionist, and this makes things very easy for us. She is a fantastic person, so creative, and she’s so much fun also in rehearsals. I look forward to performing with her again.”

Martin Grubinger and Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall
© Chris Lee

As a season opener for the Wiener Konzerthaus in 2018, Grubinger – already a recipient of the Bernstein Award at the Schleswig Holstein Musik Festival – presented a multi-percussion programme entitled The Bernstein Experience, which included a 25-minute section requiring the participation of the whole audience of 2,500 people. “We all know how Bernstein was a fantastic conductor and composer, but he was also a fantastic educator. If you watch the videos with him and the New York Philharmonic where he explains music to kids, [you can see] how passionate he is, and how fascinated his audience is. It's just wonderful. He was also a fantastic human being, with a great desire to create a better society. He always said: “I am a liberal and I am proud of it” and, especially at times like these with so many right-wing political parties coming into power, it’s so important to look at somebody like Bernstein, who really believed that he, as a person, and his music, and music itself, could make a difference. I am quite sure that if he was alive in 2019 he would compose a percussion concerto.”

As part of his busy schedule, Grubinger, together with cellist Sol Gabetta, fronts a German television programme called Klick Klack. “I love doing it,” beams Grubinger. “It gives us a chance to present different music styles and cultural traditions as well as many young artists. And I meet performers, composers and conductors and they inspire me and motivate me. After ten years we have a strong base of supporters, many watching online from around the world, so wherever I go people ask me about it. Fortunately [the programme’s crew] follow us around, so for example this month we will be in Gothenburg and we will produce our show there.”

Grubinger's concert with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra conducted by Santtu-Matias Rouvali can be watched LIVE on Bachtrack on the 15th of February.

“We will perform Sieidi, the percussion concerto by Finnish composer Kalevi Aho. It’s one of my favourite pieces. Kalevi just told me a few days ago that his is the second most popular instrumental concerto by a Finnish composer, after Sibelius' Violin Concerto, which is great. It's a fantastic piece, with some very nice instruments: the djembe from Africa, the darabuka from the Arabic countries, a drum set-up from the North American and European tradition, the marimba from Middle America, the vibraphone which has this big tradition in North America, and woodblocks, temple blocks and tom toms from the Asian countries. It's a journey, from the left side of the stage to the right side and back. This piece is a good mixture of contemporary music with a deep, strong emotion, and this is what I really like in a piece.”

Grubinger is a Professor of Multipercussion at the Zurich University of the Arts and at the University of Music and Dramatic Arts Mozarteum Salzburg.

“We have a system called pre-college in Austria, so young people from age 12 to 18 can come to our university and take lessons. It's fascinating how fast they are, and it's fun to me to work with young people, seeing how they really make progress in such a short time. On the other end, we only have two girls in our class studying percussion, and my biggest wish for the next 10 or 20 years is to see more women studying and playing percussion. It’s still very much a “boys instrument”. [Even in my own ensemble] we have sometimes 35 musicians on stage and there is only one, maximum two girls, which is a little bit sad, so it should be more.”

And while he's clearly having fun with his job, hard work is always the foundation behind Grubinger's success.

“My advice to aspiring percussionists is to be creative, try to be motivated and work hard, because to be very honest – and this is what I tell my students – of course it's sometimes a matter of talent, but the most important thing is discipline. It’s not always fun to be standing with a percussion instrument in a practice room at 2 o' clock in the morning and do another hour of practising, but it makes a difference. Be open minded, travel, listen to other styles of music and other performers, try to get in touch with contemporary composers, but at the same time try to be focused, and always – and this is what I have really learned from my father – try to love music and to enjoy what you do."

Martin Grubinger on stage at the Wiener Konzerthaus
© Michael Mazohl
Grubinger has many projects in the pipeline for 2019. A new score by Icelandic composer Daníel Bjarnason will be ready later this year, and a new percussion concerto by Turkish pianist and composer Fazıl Say will be premiered in March with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra. After having played everywhere in the world, there is only one continent left to conquer.

“I have never performed in Africa, which is really sad, because this continent is so important to percussionists. I have travelled there to see it, to learn more about its musical traditions, to discover new percussionists or percussion instruments, but I have never performed there as a musician, so that is a dream for the future.”

Find all of Grubinger's future concerts here.