Sensitivity set tone for pianist's career

No scaling down for Garrick Ohlsson, who's always after the next challenge

Classical Music

April 28, 2002|By Tim Smith | By Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

I have no burnout," Garrick Ohlsson says. "I guess that's because I'm so incredibly immature."

The laughter on the other end of the phone is hearty and contagious. And for a moment, the pianist sounds more like a high schooler than a 54-year-old virtuoso with an exceptional career that has been going on for more than three decades.

Ohlsson, whose recital tonight will wrap up the Shriver Hall Concert Series season, clearly thrives on the entire business of making music -- rehearsals, concerts, recordings. (He was dubbed "one of the best and busiest pianists" by the New York Times a few years ago.)

This is the guy who not only has recorded the complete solo works of Chopin, but performed them in marathon recital series that have been held in several cities in this country and abroad since the mid-1990s.

He's thinking of tackling another challenge in three or four years -- performing all 32 of Beethoven's sonatas in a similar recital cycle. The process of recording them all is under way, with three discs already out.

"The Chopin cycle was an incredible experience," Ohlsson says from his New York hotel.

"Basically, you get the same audience for the whole thing, so everyone is going through this huge voyage together. At the end, there is a degree of intensity that is just fabulous. I think with Beethoven sonatas, the experience would also be pretty darn good."

At 6 feet 4 and with unusually expansive hands, the large-framed Ohlsson suggests something of a benign giant with an intense musical appetite.

"There are a lot of things I want to play while I still have my chops," he says.

That includes big virtuosic pieces by Scriabin, Rachman- inoff, Liszt and the less familiar Karol Szymanowski. The pianist also keeps his sights on Bach at one end of the historic scale, contemporary composers on the other. He has championed new works throughout his career. Next year, he'll premiere a concerto by Peabody alumnus Michael Hersch.

For tonight's recital, the pianist has chosen music by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev and, of course, Chopin. The latter composer remains most closely identified with Ohlsson, who won the gold medal at the 1970 Chopin Competition in Warsaw and is still warmly embraced by the Polish public.


The field may be fairly crowded with pianists who can play Chopin effectively, but Ohlsson does more than that.

"It's a rare musician who can make us think for weeks about the music that he plays," wrote composer and critic Greg Sandow about Ohlsson in the Wall Street Journal.

And no wonder. The pianist also spends a lot of time thinking about the music that he plays, constantly examining and re-examining his approach.

The result is a level of artistic sensitivity that is as rare as it is revelatory. Was Ohlsson always so sensitive? Was it an innate gift, or gradually developed?

"Oh, gosh," he says with another laugh. "Self-characterizing is dangerous. I remember when I was a kid, I was big and strong, so I wanted to bang on the keys and go fast."

The budding pianist in White Plains, N.Y., regularly visited New York City to catch recitals.

"At 9, I heard [Artur] Rubinstein, but I was really only listening for the loud, fast parts. Then, when I was 12, I heard [Sviatoslav] Richter give an all-Beethoven recital.

"That was the first time I got the slow-movement experience. Before then, I thought composers wrote slow movements just because they had to. Once I had that experience, I wanted to seek it out again."

In addition to paying new attention to the softer, slower passages in music, the pianist focused increasingly on the sound he was making.

"I had very good teachers," Ohlsson says. "They were all hyper-conscious of tone. We had many discussions about musical structure, too, but tone was most important.

"I know there are great pianists whose preoccupation was not tone -- but there are also horrible pianists whose preoccupation was not tone."

Wide spectrum of sound

Ohlsson's ability to summon a wide spectrum of sounds from a keyboard is among his most distinctive talents. He points to two interests that helped hone that particular ability.

"I became a fan of vocal music when I was a teen-ager and started accompanying singers," says Ohlsson, whose recent recitals with contralto Ewa Podles have been acclaimed.

"And I played a lot of chamber music with string players. They are responsible for every micro-second of sound they produce. Being around string players is an inspiration."

Taking lessons from the late pianist Claudio Arrau was another inspiration.

"I first heard him when I was 15," Ohlsson says, "and got onto his wavelength right away. It was, like, 'Wow.'

"I had heard [Emil] Gilels, Rubinstein, Horowitz, Richter, [Arturo Benedetti] Michelangeli -- Arrau was one tiny level below those guys. He produced as many shades of color as Michelangeli, who was famous for his tone coloring, but Arrau was a very different colorist."

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