Garrick Ohlsson has lived with Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 for 50 years.

The Orange County Register: Garrick Ohlsson11 Oct 2017

Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 9 is 240 years old, and much about its creation remains a mystery, but pianist Garrick Ohlsson has no doubt that the 21-year-old composer was inspired by the same thing that motivates so many young men: a girl.

“Whoever she was, she must have been a very special pianist – and lady,” said Ohlsson, 69, who will perform the work this week with the Pacific Symphony under guest conductor Rune Bergmann.

The concerto’s nickname, the “Jenamy,” is possibly a reference to Victoire Jenamy (1749-1812), the daughter of the famous 18th-century ballet master Jean-Georges Noverre. She was apparently in Salzburg during the winter of 1776-77, the time and place of the concerto’s birth. Jenamy was, by many reports, an accomplished pianist; if she could play this concerto, she must have been good. Mozart used it to show off his keyboard chops when he was auditioning for jobs in Mannheim and Paris in 1777-78. Apparently he was proud of it, too: It was the first of his piano concertos to appear in print, published in Paris around 1780.

“It’s such a fully developed work,” said Ohlsson, who has been performing it since 1967. “The difference between his 8th and 9th (concertos) is vast. He’s inhabiting a different world of maturity.”

Ohlsson said it’s hard for early 21st-century audiences to appreciate how revolutionary the work would have been when it debuted.

“We’ve had so much musical history since then. ‘Rite of Spring’ was 100 years ago. We’re no longer astonished by much. But having the piano enter early, in the third bar, was really astonishing at the time.” Until then, standard practice in concertos was to let the orchestra make a full thematic statement before the soloist entered.

The concerto is full of audacious experimentation, Ohlsson said. “(Mozart) is constantly having the piano come in at the wrong time. There’s no presentation of the themes by the orchestra.” The relationship between piano and orchestra remains unpredictable throughout the first movement. “It’s like two actors arguing. ‘Is this my line or your line?’ ‘It’s mine.’ ‘No, it’s mine!’”

The concerto is a darling among music critics. Charles Rosen has called it “perhaps the first unequivocal masterpiece (of the) classical style.” Alfred Brendel topped that with his praise, labeling it “one of the greatest wonders of the world.” Alfred Einstein dubbed it “Mozart’s Eroica.”

Ohlssen balks at seconding such effusive  praise, but he’s clearly of the same mind. “This is a piece of tragic depth and great, profound sadness and beauty that recalls the Passions of Bach. Where such a young man got such emotional maturity, I don’t know. It’s uncannily mature.”


Bumper crop of brilliant pianists

Like Mozart, Ohlsson’s musical genius blossomed quickly. Five years after he began playing the piano at age 8, he was studying at the Juilliard School.  He studied with some of the greatest pianists of the time, including Claudio Arrau, Olga Barabini, Tom Lishman, Sascha Gorodnitzki, Rosina Lhévinne and Irma Wolpe. In 1970, he was the first American to win the International Frédéric Chopin Piano Competition.

A well-rounded and versatile musician, Ohlsson  is equally at home in the symphonic, solo and chamber music worlds, and he’s a veteran of the recording studio – he recorded Chopin’s complete piano works, and besides Mozart he is a champion of the works of Brahms, Busoni and several other composers.

Garrick is rumored to have more than 80 concertos in his repertoire, although the pianist cautioned to take that estimate with a grain of salt.

“First of all, it’s not like I could play any of them on any day of the week. Some I would almost have to relearn. I’m not that much of a superman. I have a good memory and I learn quickly.”

Ohlsson is also known as a pristine player with an uncommonly clean technique, which has held up well after half a century on the concert circuit. But the pianist insists it isn’t so much a result of practice as physiology and luck, and he says that age inevitably affects even the most meticulous pianists, although there are some exceptions.

“Maurizio Pollini never played a wrong note for most of his career. Murray Perahia – I hope to keep up with his level. I’ve found as I get older that it’s about working smarter, not harder. I’m 69, and these big heavyweight pieces I play now with less strain than I did at 25, although at 25 my body was more resilient.”

Ohlsson agreed that there’s a bumper crop of brilliant young classical pianists on the circuit at the moment. When asked what it takes to enjoy a five-decade career in his business, the pianist paused.

“I wish I knew the answer to that. Not every virtuoso lasts. Having the professional competence to do the job well, that’s a given. Without that you can’t express much. But some (young) pianists don’t sound very individualistic. If you listen to a recording they made in their 20s they’re gifted. But they don’t have the profound interpretive depth they develop later.”

Ohlsson thinks that life, and how the virtuoso embraces or ignores it, is crucial to musical maturity and a long career. “I think your character shapes your musical approach. Music is a much bigger world than just your instrument. You need to have a pretty wide culture. You need to remain curious.”

The Orange County Register