“We’re a strange pair,” says pianist Garrick Ohlsson of his long association with Frederic Chopin. “He was rather short, some what frail and very elegant. I’m not a fashion plate and weigh 260 pounds and have enjoyed good health my whole life.”
Music would seem to unite Ohlsson and Chopin across the centuries. But even there, Ohlsson points out a contrast: “I love playing concerts. He hated playing concerts.”
Ohlsson will be playing another concert – all Chopin – this Thursday night at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, in honor of the Polish composer’s bicentennial year. It will be the opening of the 114th season of the Troy Chromatics and Ohlsson’s third appearance for the series.
One of today’s top virtuosos, Ohlsson, 62, was the first American to win the prestigious International Frederick Chopin Competition in Warsaw in 1970. Over the subsequent years he’s embraced a broad range of repertoire. For example, he played Rachmaninoff this past summer with the Philadelphia Orchestra at SPAC and a Martinu concerto with the Albany Symphony Orchestra just last year.
Yet Chopin has always held a place of honor, not just because of the competition that launched his career.
“Growing up in New York I thought an all-Chopin recital was just a part of life,” he recalls. “I heard them with Rubenstein and Horowitz and Pollini and Ashkenazy. But it doesn’t seem to be as common now.”
Certainly there’s a huge amount of works by the composer to chose from. Ohlsson concurs, “I try to show his whole range and variety and that’s not difficult to do.”
“In the 19th century he was much criticized for writing salon music, but that’s a bit of myth. He did write lots of little two-minute things but he wasn’t always obsessed with the miniature,” continues Ohlsson. “In Troy I’ll begin with one of those narcotic nocturnes but then conclude the first half with a major piece, the F-sharp minor Polonaise, a big tragic statement. This is epic poetry, not small bites.”
Speaking of poetry, Ohlsson is well aware of the popular ideas of Chopin — who died in 1849 at age 39 — as the ultimate, tragic romantic.
“There’s that bad Hollywood idea of a neurotic composer who dropped his quill into perfume to write for a lovesick contessa. Those are just hyper-romantic, morbid ideas,” he says.
“In fact, Chopin helped change western music. He was the most harmonically advanced composer of his time and considered a wild child,” continues Ohlsson. “He was also writing masterpieces at age 19. Okay, he wasn’t quiet as precocious as Mozart but what do you want?”
Originally appeared in the Times Union, Albany, NY.
Gay Ears addendum:
Ohlsson was quiet talkative and friendly during our phone interview. Because I’d gotten more than enough material from him for a little story to preview his Chopin recital, I decided the time was right to ask whether he remembered Louis Weingarden. A composer who died of AIDS in 1989, Weingarden wrote a solo piece and a piano concerto for Ohlsson. I was curious whether Ohlsson had any interest in such ancient history.
“Oh Lou and I were good friends, roommates for a time and I’m planning to record his Tryptich. It will be part of an album that includes another composer who died of AIDS, William Hibbard,” replied Ohlsson. He added that he probably won’t get around to recording it until 2011 at the earliest and that it won’t be an AIDS or gay-themed disc, though he of course is gay and out. He pointed to a 2003 profile in the New York Times by James Oestreich that referred to his living in San Francisco with his companion, Robert Guter.
I told him that all of this would be of interest to readers of this blog. He asked that the Times Union not make a headline out of it (“Gay pianist comes to town”). I replied that it probably wouldn’t even come up in my newspaper story but that such a natural progression in the conversation was unusual and refreshing. ”I’m no coward,” he said.