By his mid-teens, Ganz was practicing seven hours a day. He had professional management, lots of solo engagements and a growing name as a prodigy in his own right. But he hadn't absorbed quite all of Fleisher's teachings, and that led him to some mysteries of his own.
A bold break
At the keyboard in a studio at the rear of his house, the teacher and the performer in Ganz are both evident as he strikes two of the opening chords to Ballade No. 1.
Structurally, they're both G-minors. Atmospherically, they're different.
"One's milk chocolate," says Ganz, moving his hands to a slightly different position. "The other's dark chocolate."
His adult life has been a little like that.
Sometime during his 18th year, as he pursued his busy concert schedule, his feelings toward his calling began to change. As he looked toward performances, Ganz found himself feeling dread.
He was still dazzling listeners, but onstage, he found himself fixating less on the process of making music and more on how he looked, how he compared with other pianists, what kind of reviews he might get.
And musically, he was driving himself toward a cruel and unattainable standard: perfection.
"In some ways, I had grown up too fast, in other ways not fast enough," he says. "It was like that nightmare in which you find yourself up in an airplane, only to realize you don't know how to fly the thing. I didn't know how to say it at the time, but I remember thinking, 'I don't want to be a fearful, tight, unhappy pianist who's afraid to make mistakes. Maybe music isn't the direction I want to go after all.' "
Chopin's biographers say he composed by improvising on the piano, then staying up all night trying to figure out what he'd done. Ganz, too, decided to follow his instincts, then try to understand them.
At 18, he decided to stop playing solo concerts.
"I think it's coupled with the nature of being a soloist," says Sirken, who has remained friends with Ganz. "You spend a tremendous amount of time alone, in your own head, hearing, crafting, listening to and responding to yourself. It's physically, emotionally and psychologically challenging. At the same time, it's tempting to think of yourself as hot stuff. It was bold of him to quit."
Ganz enrolled in liberal arts classes at Catholic University. He considered a career in organized religion. He threw himself into Werner Erhard's est, prayed and meditated, and studied "A Course in Miracles," among other spiritual pursuits.
"I was trying to open myself to what had been fearful, to embrace a willingness to be imperfect," says Ganz. He began to sense an odd paradox: that the best music might, in fact, come out of flawed human nature.
After seven years, in 1985, a nervous Ganz decided to try the stage again. The old sense of exploration was back, but there was a difference. He was serving the music rather than the other way around. And enjoying it more than ever.
The artist's curriculum vitae lists achievements that establish him, in the words of a faculty biography, as "one of the leading pianists of his generation."
Ganz has performed at concert halls from Helsinki to Tokyo, recorded on the Accord label in France and the REM label in Europe, and won an array of performance honors, including first prizes in the Thibaud International Piano Competition in Paris and the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium Piano Competition.
One music critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently wrote of his "cascades of rippling arpeggios, melodies soaring into space and microscopically sculpted phrases."
Gajewski says Chopin or no, he invites Ganz to perform with the National Philharmonic more than any other soloist.
"He's incredibly musical, [a man with] flawless technique," says the maestro, who got the idea for the series last year, which was the 200th anniversary of Chopin's birth. "I thought it would be interesting to choose Brian. It seemed the perfect marriage of passion and skill."
Ganz — who is on the teaching faculties of both Peabody and St. Mary's College of Maryland — allows time during concerts for the audience to ask questions, and the audience has asked everything from why he sometimes uses sheet music to what it's like to be a performer.
He loves the process and considers it part of his calling.
"There's something like nourishment in music," he says. "My goal is that we all be nourished by this music together. For me that means opening up to the connections that are possible with these beautiful souls who are there to share this great music with you.
"I don't want to say it's easy to let go of the ego. It's not. But when you can, the goal of authentic communication with your listeners becomes much more attainable," he says.
He sits at the keyboard again, preparing to play Ballade No. 1 — "the odyssey of Chopin's soul," in the words of an American music critic.