Garrick Ohlsson, a Chopin player for all seasons

February 07, 2012
By David Fleshler

Garrick Ohlsson will open a 14-city tour with the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra Wednesday night at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Photo: Wojciech Grzedzinski

The watershed moment in Garrick Ohlsson’s career is often taken to be his 1970 victory in the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition in Warsaw, where he became the first American to take the gold medal.

But an equally significant event took place shortly after the competition, in the midtown Manhattan office of Ohlsson’s manager, Harold Shaw. The agent, a canny legend in the classical world whose clients have included Vladimir Horowitz, Jacqueline du Pre and Andres Segovia, laid out a plan that he believed would fill concert halls, sell records and turn the 22-year-old pianist into his latest A-list client: Ohlsson would play Chopin and nothing but Chopin for three years to “really establish your market identity.”

“Mr. Shaw, I understand your point,” said Ohlsson, who will perform on tour this month with the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra. “But I don’t want to be only a Chopin specialist. I want to play other pieces, and I don’t see myself that way.”

Shaw leaned back in his chair and thought for a minute.

“Okay,” he said. “It won’t be easy. But we can do it that way.”

They did it that way, and as it turned out they both got what they wanted. Ohlsson, 63, did turn into an acclaimed Chopin specialist, having recorded a 16-disc set of all of the Polish master’s works, appeared in the 2010 television documentary The Art of Chopin, and devoted entire recitals to Chopin.

But he also developed into a pianist with a famously wide range—more than 80 concertos are in his repertoire— and a man with the big hands and big technique for the bravura works of Liszt and Rachmaninoff as well as the sensitivity and musical intelligence for Beethoven, Mozart and Schubert. Unlike many younger pianists today, who quickly pigeonhole themselves as flashy technicians or hyper-serious performer-scholars, Ohlsson refused to limit himself.

“The great artists I grew up hearing—many of them, but not all of them—were all-rounders,” he said. “They played Beethoven and Tchaikovsky and Liszt, and some Bach and some Mozart and Stravinsky. And so I guess that was my model.”

As a young piano student in the New York City suburb of White Plains, he encountered one of his greatest inspirations in the legendary Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein at Carnegie Hall in 1957 playing an all-Chopin program.

“I knew from the moment I walked in the hall something was different,” Ohlsson said in a telephone interview from his home in San Francisco. “It was packed, and there were people sitting on the stage, which I had never seen.

“I feel like I remember every second of that recital. He began with the F-sharp minor Polonaise, ended with the Ballade No. 1, and I was just entranced. It showed me what music and a recital could be with a great performer in terms of range and communication, especially communication with the audience.”

For the young Ohlsson, Rubinstein represented one pole of Chopin interpretation, with the other represented by the restless, kinetic virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz. “Horowitz was nocturnal and febrile and neurotic and sexy and exaggerated,” he said. “And Rubinstein was like sunshine, warm and beautiful, not particularly neurotic, very exciting, but didn’t take you into the dark premises so frequently.”

As he grew older he realized there was a greater range of Chopin interpretation than that represented by these two giants, but he still finds himself torn, as both performer and listener, between the extremes of Chopin performances.

“When I hear Chopin playing which is all magic and moonlight and perfume and excitement and drug-induced craziness, it gets sickening after a while,” he said. “But if I also hear a very dry classicist Chopin that seeks to emphasize his structural elegance and seeks not be particularly emotional or carried away, that’s repulsive. You want the tension between the two.”

Ohlsson grew up in White Plains, N.Y., in the northern suburbs of New York City. He started on the piano at 8, a relatively advanced age for a concert soloist, but made quick progress, entering the Juilliard School at 13. Among his teachers was the great Chilean-American pianist Claudio Arrau.

Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 2, which Ohlsson will perform on tour with the Wroclaw Philharmonic Orchestra under conductor Jacek Kaspszyk, is an early work, completed when the composer was 20. (For his second concert at the Kravis Center, Ohlsson will perform Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4.)

“I’ve performed the Chopin now hundreds of times with orchestras great and small,” he said. “Every time you play it, it such a challenging work that you have to work on it and inevitably think about it. Because for me, it’s not that I consciously change the interpretation, but when I come back to practicing it I’m not the same person I was 40 years ago. I have different insights and different feelings, and I just bring all my experience to it.”

Many orchestral musicians can’t stand Chopin concertos because the composer tended to consign the orchestra to the dull work of playing long-held notes while the piano goes off on flights of melody and virtuosity. Playing Chopin with a Polish orchestra, of course, will be different because in his homeland Chopin occupies a position that seems to combine elements of George Washington and Frank Sinatra.

As one of Ohlsson’s Polish friends told him, as a medium-sized European country, Poland used to have only Copernicus and Chopin as world-class historical figures. Now, of course, they can add Pope John Paul II to the list, but the composer still occupies a position of unique importance in the country 163 years after his death. He was a patriot at a time when Poland didn’t even exist politically, having been carved up in the previous century by Russia, Austria and Prussia. He composed in nationalistic forms, bringing the rhythms of the mazurka and polonaise into the Parisian salons in which he performed.

Ohlsson felt this when he performed in Warsaw for the Chopin competition, which was broadcast on television and radio. “When you got comments or compliments from people on the street it wasn’t, ‘Oh you played beautifully’ or ‘I enjoyed it so much,’” he said. “It would be more like, ‘Oh, my grandmother said that (Ignaz) Friedman played the left hand in the middle section of that mazurka with the same accentuation you did.’”

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