Music and Beyond: Garrick Ohlsson’s appetite for music is prodigious

Garrick Ohlsson. Photo: Mark McBeth

The American pianist Garrick Ohlsson is a performer of prodigious musical appetites. The guy has range to accompany his massive hands.

“I have large appetites for music and a few other things. If I am in a good restaurant, I know I can only eat one dinner and share one bottle of wine, but I see 15 other things that I would love to have.

“It’s the same thing with music. I’m always sorry I can only put so much music on the same programme but there is the question of endurance and pleasure. You can have too much of a good thing. More seriously, I wonder about why we have the affinities we do.”

Still needs must be satisfied and programmes must be put together.

He will play in Ottawa on Saturday, as part of the Music and Beyond Festival, an evening of music by Schubert, Scriabin and Brahms.

“This summer I have eight recitals and only two are same programme. This the only one with Brahms, Scriabin and Schubert. Some of it is shaped by necessity.” He is playing Schubert at Tanglewood in New York State and so it makes sense to put him on a performance list. And there is a connection of sorts to the Russian Scriabin.

“I actually managed to cobble together something and wrote about how Schubert and Scriabin were both quite progressive. If you think about Schubert in his last three years, he was progressing so quickly that he was that if he had lived to age 50 he would have invented atonality because that’s the way he was going.

“Of course we can never know but it is fun to contemplate. Scriabin, although not quite so prodigious near the end of his life, had developed very quickly from being the heir of Chopin to being one of the leaders in the progress towards atonality. He was right up there with Stravinsky and Debussy.

“Plus he, like Schubert in his last years, tended towards darkness and incredible outbursts.”

Such connections, Ohlsson admits, are a bit of a stretch but “it’s fun.”

Where does Brahms fit then? Well, he probably doesn’t, apart from the fact that he loved Schubert and Scriabin hated Brahms. But Ohlsson is recording a CD of late Brahms music for Hyperion in the fall and needs to have his music in his hands.

“There is a lovely story about the young Rubinstein who had met Scriabin in Paris and they were at a cafe and Scriabin said ‘Young man, what do you like to play best?’ and Rubinstein said ‘Brahms’. And Scriabin said, ‘You must stop doing that,  immediately, it’s evil.’ Rubinstein concludes by saying ‘I continue to play both Brahms and Scriabin’.”

In the end, Ohlsson has put together a performance that pleases him and there’s not much more to it than that.

“It’s not so entirely consequential. We’ve grown so fond, in our music culture, of consequential recital programming. Here I’m just breaking it.”

That’s the confidence that comes from a lifetime of performing at the highest level and learning from other amazing performers.

One stands out for the positive influence the playing had upon him.

“One of the things that inspired me most was hearing Sviatoslav Richter when I was a teenager. I remember he did a programme of Prokofiev and Scriabin in the first half, which did raise the roof of course. And then he came out and played Ravel in the second half and, at age 15, I thought it sounded like a different piano and a different pianist.

“He was so adept at matching his sound and style to the music you really felt when you were listening him play Haydn it was Haydn and when he was playing Beethoven it was Beethoven.

“I try to do the same. … I don’t try to say this is my individual take on something. I try as best as I can to see it from the inside of the music. I know that that can also be a conceit because you can’t avoid your own ego, but I don’t start with the premise of ‘What can I do to this. … I just try to understand the music as best I can.”

In this way, he is collaborating with the composer of the piece he is playing. It is something he does with other musicians and singers.

“I love (collaboration) because from your colleagues you learn things … how they feel about music. I learn from conductors and listening to orchestras. It’s incredibly rewarding. And you get better at it. You learn what needs to be done. You start learning about bowing for strings. … You just fit in more and it inspires you because you can see more in the music … that this part is more like a singing line, this is percussion.

“Listening becomes quite intuitive after a while.”

When he was nine, he says, a teacher made him play with an 11 year old violinist. Her teacher kept chastising him for not working with the violin.

“I got that beaten into me. Now that I am 69 and I do master classes or private lessons I feel like I am in the position of all those teachers. I don’t screech but now I know why my teachers got so passionately excited about something that when I was 17 I didn’t quite understand.

“It’s like what Brahms said about understanding Beethoven. ‘Do what he writes, understanding comes later.’ Understanding comes with time and age.”

One of the key turning points of Ohlsson’s musical career occurred in 1970 when he won the international Chopin competition in Warsaw.

Poland then was an occupied country. Things were grim economically compared to North America, he says.

“I was quite intimidated by it and little bit scared of  the surveillance state. But it turned out Poland was the one place where, if you were from the West, people wanted to talk to you. They were rather fearless and famous for that. A westerner was a chance to practice English and perhaps trade on the black market. In East Germany, they would not go near you.”

He remembers being very tense about the competition but he says he got something incredible and lasting from his appearance there.

“Art really mattered to them. It is still revered and more central to the culture as opposed to the West. When I was playing my victory recital and I got to the 13th encore I didn’t know what to do because I didn’t know anything else so I played the first encore again.”

The victory got him many invitations to play and put him on the stage with other world-class pianists. That meant high expectations and Ohlsson said that benefited him.

“I think it made me work harder. I had to meet the standard.”

To this day Poland remains a special place for him.

“Poland is the only country where sometimes the customs agent looking at my passport will look up and ask ‘Can I have your autograph?’

At 69, Ohlsson has no plans to retire.

“I am in harness as long as I can. It’s one thing to hear a concert but to give one is so rewarding.

“I love what I do, I don’t know how to do anything else well. Nothing is so stimulating or pleasurable or challenging so I’m in it for awhile.”

Garrick Ohlsson
Music and Beyond Festival
When: July 8 at 7:30 p.m.
Where: Dominion Chalmers United Church

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.