Journey of the spirit

Pianist Brian Ganz will perform all 250 of Chopin's works, following in the footsteps of the composer he loves

  • Brian Ganz, 50, plays a Chopin Mazurka on his Steinway at home, with his two dogs for company. Ganz, who teaches at the Peabody Institute and St. Mary's College of Maryland, is embarking on a decade-plus project to play all of Frederic Chopin's work in concert at the Strathmore Music Center. The first recital in the series "Brian Ganz and the Strathmore Chopin Project," presented in partnership with the National Philharmonic, will take place on Jan. 22.
Brian Ganz, 50, plays a Chopin Mazurka on his Steinway at home,… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
January 15, 2011|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The boy was 11, already well along in his process of discovering music, when he found himself alone at home one day, listening to a piece by one of history's great romantics.

He couldn't explain it, but something in the sounds of Frederic Chopin's Ballade No. 1 in G Minor, Opus 23 — as played by Polish musician Witold Malcuzynsky — struck Brian Ganz like a bolt from stormy skies.

"It was mysterious, sort of soulful, and I actually, literally, doubled over in pain," says Ganz, an internationally celebrated concert pianist who lives in Annapolis. "I remember thinking, 'What is this? How can it be so beautiful that it hurts?' That was the moment that I like to say Chopin wounded me."

The injury, if painful, was an opening to explore, and Ganz's journey never stopped. On Saturday, Jan. 22, the performer of "breathtaking technique and spectacular musicianship," as one reviewer recently put it, embarks on a series of concerts at the Strathmore Theater in Bethesda in which he'll perform all of the 250 works Chopin composed.

"My intention is to play absolutely every note," says Ganz, 50, who calls the 19th-century composer his lifelong love. "I won't leave a thing out. It all has value, it all has beauty" — including the two polonaises Chopin wrote at age 7, which will be part of Saturday's concert.  

Ganz is likely the first to have undertaken such a project on Chopin, according to Piotr Gajewski, the musical director and conductor of the National Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, which is sponsoring the series. It should take the performer roughly a decade to complete — about 14 full concerts at a rate of one or more a year.

Seated at the grand piano in his light-filled home, Ganz says the stunning range of human emotion in Chopin — who wrote the vast majority of his works for the solo piano — has helped inspire his own journey through life.

To hear him tell it, that voyage has been a little like Ballade No. 1, which he says he will play for a reporter. Not every passage has been harmonious.

Awestruck

When Chopin was a 5-year-old child in Warsaw, Poland, his musical ear was so keen that when his mother played piano around the house, he wept at the beauty of it.

By 7, in 1817, he was well-known as a composing and performing prodigy, and he went on to write what some consider the most challenging piano pieces of all time.

Ganz, the child of English teachers, didn't get started quite that young, but as a boy growing up in Columbia, he too felt the draw of music early.

His grandfather, a choir director in Pennsylvania, played the piano at family gatherings, and hearing that, Ganz says, left him "awestruck" — and cemented the feeling that he would spend his life at a keyboard. By age 9 he was taking lessons, absorbing Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and relishing trips to the music store so he could hear the next mazurka or nocturne by Chopin.

Why Chopin? He's not sure — "Music is what it is because you can't put it into words," Ganz says — but he sensed a lot of harmonic inventiveness in the compositions, not to mention an exotic or mysterious strain, as though the music was posing a million fascinating questions it couldn't quite answer.

"I've long said, perhaps a little cryptically, that if you can imagine different composers speaking different languages, Chopin's music is the language of my soul," Ganz says.

A succession of master teachers shaped it: the late Claire Deene, who doled out Ganz's assignments with meticulous care; a fiery Hungarian tutor in Washington, Yida Novik, who threw him into a lively salon-style environment and encouraged him to join competitions; and, when he was 16, the legendary conductor and Peabody Conservatory music professor, Leon Fleisher.

He had already demonstrated extraordinary promise. Adrienne Sirken, the executive director of the Golandsky Institute International Piano Festival at Princeton University, studied with Ganz under Novik and remembers a young teen with formidable attention skills and a vast appetite for learning.

He made two years' worth of progress in six months, Sirken says, surpassing even the older kids, and emerged as the star of the studio.

Normally that would cause some resentment, but Ganz had such a charming, disarming manner, it never happened. "Even if you were tempted to, it was impossible to hate him," she says with a laugh.

Ganz remembers his time with Fleisher as "an extraordinary experience of gestation, some of the most intense learning of my life" — a year and a half of exploring structure and craft but also pondering poetry, philosophy and more.

Fleisher taught him to see a score as a sort of treasure map that points toward an ideal — but also that, no matter how hard you work or how good you are, "every piece is greater than what you can possibly play, so you're forever striving for an ideal you can never reach."

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