With certain masterpieces, life is too short not to play them

Pianist Ohlsson breathes new life into old favorites16 Feb 2018

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson isn’t one of those musicians who necessarily believes that concert programs need to be built around a theme.

In fact, he said, the selections in any given program “have to fit in a groove with what I’m doing in many other places.” There’s a practical reason for that: “I can only play so many pieces at a time.”

So, for example, for his winter-spring tour currently underway (which brings the Grammy winner to Corvallis for a Sunday concert), he prepares two different programs.

And then, he explained with resigned good humor, the “various sponsors have their issues” with the two programs. Maybe one of the works on one of the programs was performed by someone else in a certain town a year or two ago. Sometimes a sponsor has strong preferences for another piece.

“It is kind of a negotiation,” Ohlsson said in an interview this week.

But all that helps to explain the various parts of his Sunday program: Beethoven’s well-known Sonata in C minor, Op. 13 (“Pathetique”), along with Alexander Scriabin’s Sonata No. 5 and Schubert’s Sonata in B flat major.

Musical snobs may sniff that the three pieces have little in common, and Ohlsson doesn’t necessarily disagree.

But they do have this in common: They’re all terrific works of music.

“With certain masterpieces, life is too short not to play them,” he said. “So here we are.”

There is a certain challenge, he said, in performing a piece as well-known as Beethoven’s “Pathetique.”

But it’s a challenge that brings opportunity to a performer in a live setting: “When it’s such a ‘Mount Rushmore’ kind of piece, most people — including me — have grown up with a specific recording of it in mind.” In concert, though, a performer has the chance to interpret the work in a different way, “because interpreters bring different things. Everybody has a different take. You hope to have a relevant, meaningful take on any piece you play. You hope, of course, that everyone will faint with ecstasy.”

Listeners may not all faint with ecstasy every time Ohlsson performs, but he’s been collecting rapturous reviews now for decades, even since he won the gold medal at the 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition, the first and only American to do that. In 1994, he won the Avery Fisher Prize, an award given to American musicians to recognize outstanding achievements in classical music. His Grammy win came in 2008 for a recording of Beethoven piano sonatas.

The native of White Plains, New York started playing the piano at age 8, at the Westchester Conservatory of Music and immediately loved it.

“I just loved everything about it,” he said. “I loved the intentionality of making my body do that. … You do something and make a sound, and you either like it or you don’t.”

That love hasn’t gone away, even after years of performance at the highest level. It helps, he said, that he’s physically a good fit for the instrument: “I happen to be a tall person. I’m built well for the piano.”

It also has helped, he said, to have “very good teachers. They all helped me to use my body in the most natural way,” learning “how to work with the piano and not against it.”

“It’s taken a long time for me,” he joked, “to make it look easy.”

Gazette Times