I first learned about Garrick Ohlsson as I did about most of the famous pianists of the mid-to-late 20th century: through Dean Elder’s interviews for Clavier, later compiled into Pianists at Play. I read this collection so many times as a high-schooler that I can still recount a good portion of Ohlsson’s early story without consulting it. (The volume, autographed by Mr. Elder, is on my bookshelf here—I’ve never gone anywhere without it.) As with all the pianists’ interviews, I was transfixed by the tales of the dramatic events of his upbringing, training, and preparing for major competitions; in Ohlsson’s case fireworks exploding during the Busoni in Bolzano, the heightened atmosphere of the Montreal (both first-prize wins), and then his capstone 1970 Chopin International Piano Competition triumph. Preferring this competition’s repertoire to that of the Tchaikovsky Competition his teacher Rosina Lhevinne encouraged him to enter instead, Ohlsson learned all the required Chopin music from scratch. The rest is history—he went to Warsaw at age 21 and won first prize, the first American to do so. The victory launched him on an stellar career of several decades that takes him to Corvallis on February 18.
Growing up in Syracuse, NY, I had the benefit of a community of truly superb piano teachers producing a considerable number of conservatory-bound pianists. Both the comradery and competition inspired us to work hard and mature as musicians as expediently as possible. We all shared the good fortune of having one of the nation’s major symphony orchestras (at the time officially classified as such) right in our city. During my senior year of high school, after Syracuse Symphony music director Christopher Keene was named general director of the New York City Opera, many notable guest conductors came through to audition for the post. One of the first was Jahja Ling (who has recently retired after a long tenure as music director of the San Diego Symphony). I attended with my father, my best friend (an excellent violinist), and my piano teacher. Ling made an extremely favorable impression on us, in large part for his beautifully skilled collaboration on the Grieg Piano Concerto. This was the first time I heard this incredibly rich work performed live. The piano soloist? Garrick Ohlsson, performing as magisterially as advertised. How exciting this all was! The combination of soloist, concerto, guest conductor on point, and great company made for an evening I have never forgotten.
As a new board member of Corvallis-OSU Piano International, I find one of the many wonderful things about COPI is the organization’s ongoing commitment that students always attend the Steinway Series concerts for free. While I was sharing this information with the Lincoln County OMTA group, I suddenly recalled being taken to hear Van Cliburn give a solo recital in Syracuse when I was in elementary school. This concert made a huge impression on me because I had just started piano lessons and recently seen Cliburn perform as a guest on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, playing the piano upside-down! (Lady Elaine Fairchild had cast a spell on him.) As I told the OMTA group, even back in 1975, I didn’t get into that concert for free!
In the time since I saw Ohlsson perform in Syracuse, he has forged a huge career, becoming one of the titanic pianists of his generation. I have heard him four more times in live performance, one of them an all-Chopin recital in Seattle in 2010 for the composer’s bicentennial. I was sitting with Robin McCabe, and afterward, we agreed that Ohlsson exhibited a miraculous ability to play each and every note with 100 percent intention.
Music teachers, please take your students to hear this major pianist (and all Steinway Series performers)! You never know what inner fire this may kindle. Students, impress your friends by inviting them to a free, inspiring study break or Sunday tea date. Parents, share these concerts with your families. In this go-go-go day and age, with everyone spending so much time parked in front of various electronic screens, I cannot imagine a soul who wouldn’t benefit from hearing such an accomplished and inspiring pianist share a life’s experience in music with us for an afternoon on the beautiful piano of the LaSells Stewart Center.
~ Matt Goodrich